In a fiery press conference held near the Gaza border, the leaders of the Blue and White party on Tuesday warned that the centrist party led by three ex-generals could invade Gaza with the aim of toppling the Hamas terror group if takes power after elections.
Party leader Benny Gantz said Hamas, the de facto ruler of the Strip, would be presented with a list of conditions under threat of a ground offensive and a campaign of assassinations if it does not meet them, as Blue and White attempted to capitalize on simmering anger at the government over recurrent rounds of heavy fighting on the border and a series of shaky ceasefires.
“We don’t intend for the deterrence to erode and the rounds of fighting to continue,” party leader Benny Gantz said during the tour of the city of Sderot, which has been targeted by thousands of rockets from Gaza. “The next time something happens here we will make sure that it will be the last round. We will aim for the toppling of Hamas, take action to assassinate all Hamas leaders and go in with ground forces for however long we want. We will not accept a ceasefire; we will bring about the military defeat of Hamas.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently been attacked on the campaign trail over his Gaza policy, but has defended agreeing to ceasefires and allowing cash transfers into the Palestinian enclave saying it is in Israel’s interest to do everything possible to avoid a major military operation in the Strip.
Alongside his fellow senior party members Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — who, like himself, are former IDF chiefs of staff — and Yair Lapid, Gantz said his government would have two key demands of Hamas: “complete silence and returning the boys” — referring to civilians and bodies of IDF soldiers held in Gaza. “If not — we will begin a broad operation. The IDF has the operational capabilities, and we will have the courage to carry it out.”
“Next time 700 rockets are launched from Gaza to Sderot, you need to choose which security cabinet you want here — Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi or [Bezalel] Smotrich, Lt. Gen. Bogie Ya’alon or Miri Regev, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and me or nobody, because Bibi disappears every time shots are fired from Gaza,” Blue and White No. 2, Yair Lapid said, referring to a two-day round of violence in May between Israel and Gaza that ended in an unofficial ceasefire.
“We are standing here because Hamas needs to know that the next time rockets are fired at Israeli citizens, Hamas leaders on our watch won’t get suitcases with dollars, they will get a guided missile into their home.”
“We will topple Hamas leadership,” added Ashkenazi. “We will hit headquarters, warehouses, operatives. Then we will fix the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”
In late June, Israel and Hamas reached a new ceasefire agreement, which was aimed at halting the launch of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Strip into southern Israel and reining in the general level of violence along the border, in exchange for a number of economic concessions on israel’s part.
Since the truce went into effect, there has been a marked drop in the number of airborne arson attacks, though they have not stopped completely.
The government led by Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, has faced considerable criticism from southern residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle for what they say is a failure to adequately respond to ongoing violence by Hamas and other terror groups from the Gaza Strip, either militarily or via a long-term truce.
Netanyahu said last month that although he would prefer for the border with Gaza to remain calm, Israel was preparing for a possible wide-ranging military offensive that would be “surprising.”
“I prefer that there be calm — not that we are under the illusion that we can reach a political agreement with [Hamas], who wants to wipe the State of Israel off the face of the earth. But we are preparing for a campaign that is not only broad, but also surprising,” Netanyahu said in a meeting at city hall in the coastal city of Ashkelon, which has seen heavy bombardment by rockets from the coastal enclave over the past few years.
Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.