The security cabinet on Thursday instructed the army to step up its response to any violence emanating from the Gaza Strip during the border protests expected Friday, amid skyrocketing tensions in the Palestinian enclave.
Ministers said the IDF should ramp up the severity of its responses gradually, but ultimately adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward rocket attacks, arson balloons and rioting along the Israeli border, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
The new stepped-up response to violence on the Gaza border includes a green light for troops to fire at Gazans who are farther away from the fence than the distance mandated by the current open-fire guidelines, the Haaretz daily reported, as well a more forceful response to incendiary balloon launches.
The report said most ministers toned down their rhetoric at the nighttime cabinet meeting compared with their combative media statements, opting to wait for Friday’s expected demonstrations and for the results of Egypt-led efforts to negotiate a long-term ceasefire before escalating the military’s response.
The cabinet meeting came after a rocket fired from Gaza scored a direct hit on a home in Beersheba and a second one fell into the sea near the Tel Aviv area. Israel responded by striking some 20 targets in the Strip.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had sought a more dramatic decision, according to the report, but most other cabinet members criticized him for offering no practical plan.
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, the education minister, was said to oppose a full-blown ground operation inside the Strip for now, though he has pushed for increased military measures and sparred with Liberman through the media.
Minister were ordered not to give media interviews on the matter, the report said.
“I can’t address the content of cabinet discussion but I can say one thing very explicitly — the rules of the game are going to change,” Housing Minister Yoav Galant said after the meeting.
“We won’t accept more fire and [border] fence terror,” added Galant, a former general who headed the IDF’s Southern Command.
The cabinet’s decision not to launch a military operation against Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other terror groups in the Strip was met with condemnation by local government leaders in southern Israel.
“We had every reason to deliver a serious response in a way that they would understand the message,” Eshkol Regional Council head Gadi Yarkoni told Channel 10. “We should have taken advantage of what happened in Beersheba to restore deterrence, but unfortunately that did not happen.”
Yarkoni said Israel was crying wolf every time it promised a harsh response to violence emanating from Gaza but failed to do so: “If you threaten something again and again, and then don’t follow through, it loses all meaning.”
Hof Ashkelon Council head Yair Farjun told the TV station that an early morning message telling residents to return to their routines came as a surprise.
“Based on the meeting we had with the prime minister yesterday, we had an understanding that there was going to be an escalation tonight,” he said.
Eshkol Regional Council head Tamir Idan called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau and the IDF to “soon make the decision to bring an end to the ongoing and infuriating saga of terrorism in Gaza.”
Netanyahu convened army brass and his top political leaders Wednesday evening after a rocket fired from Gaza struck a home in Beersheba and the IDF responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets.
Hamas and the second largest terror group in the Strip, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, officially denied carrying out the rocket attack, saying it was “irresponsible” and undermined an Egyptian-led negotiation effort.
Israeli officials rejected the claim, saying only Hamas and Islamic Jihad had the capability of shooting rockets that could reach Beersheba.
On Thursday, London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat reported that Hamas and the other Gaza factions had reached an agreement to reduce the scale of violent border protests in a bid to boost Egypt’s diplomatic efforts.
The report said the factions agreed to deescalate tensions on Monday, but did not identify who was responsible for launching the rockets at Israel.
There were no injuries in the attack, despite the rocket scoring a direct hit on a home, after mother Miri Tamano managed to drag her three sons into a bomb shelter seconds before the strike.
In response to the rocket fire, the Israeli Air Force conducted strikes against some 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including a border-crossing tunnel.
As the security cabinet convened later in the day, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, warned the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group that Israel will “know how to respond more forcefully for situations in the future.”
In a video, Halevi said the army conducted “significant strikes against Hamas weapons manufacturing facilities, headquarters, posts and underground infrastructure. Everything that was attacked, was destroyed. It will be difficult for them to rebuild, to bring in the money (to pay for reconstruction).”
Egypt and the UN have reportedly scrambled to try to negotiate a calm between the sides since the rocket attack on Beersheba, which came days after Israeli leaders had already threatened a wider offensive over near-daily border riots and launches of incendiary balloons and kites.
Reports Wednesday said that Abbas Kamel, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, had canceled a trip to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel set for Thursday amid the tensions surrounding Gaza.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
There have also been several flareups that took Israel and Hamas to the brink of war, with Palestinians firing rockets into Israel and the IDF responding with airstrikes.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.