Defense minister: Next round of fighting with Hamas is a matter of when, not if

Liberman meets IDF top brass in Gaza Division to discuss ongoing violence in the Strip, says Israel’s security policies are set responsibly, not to appease ‘online commenters’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, speaks with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, right, and other senior military officers during a visit to the Gaza Division on August 13, 2018. (Shahar Levi/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, speaks with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, right, and other senior military officers during a visit to the Gaza Division on August 13, 2018. (Shahar Levi/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday said Israel’s next round of fighting with the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip was a “matter of when, not if,” following last week’s large-scale flareup, in which rockets and mortar shells rained down on southern Israel and the military responded with extensive airstrikes in the Palestinian enclave.

“The question of the next round of fighting is not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when.’ I am sure that we will do what we must how we must,” Liberman said during a meeting with senior military officers in the IDF Southern Command.

The defense minister also responded to recent criticism that the Israel Defense Forces should have kept up its attacks on the Gaza-ruling Hamas in light of the repeated rocket and mortar attacks on Wednesday and Thursday rather than accept a ceasefire.

Israel officially denies that is agreeing to an Egyptian- and UN-brokered ceasefire, though in the days since the flareup, no rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza and the IDF has conducted no airstrikes, indicating a de-facto understanding even if no formal deal was signed.

“We are implementing a responsible and forceful security policy. A responsible security policy is not a response, not to online commenters, not to newspaper headlines and not to public opinion. We are prepared and know what to do and how to do it,” he said, speaking at the Gaza Division headquarters on the Reim Military Base.

A picture taken on August 9, 2018, shows people inspecting the rubble of a building targeted by the Israeli Air Force in response to a rocket attack that hit southern Israel earlier in the day on August 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

During the meeting, Liberman also disclosed Israel’s official tally for the number of Palestinians killed and injured by the IDF since March 30, with the start of the “Great March of Return” protests along the Gaza border fence, which have seen repeated violent clashes between Palestinian rioters and IDF troops.

“Since the start of the ‘March of Return’ events, Hamas has sustained 168 deaths, 4,348 injured and dozens of terror facilities destroyed,” Liberman said.

The Israeli government rarely releases official tallies of the number of Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip.

The defense minister did not indicate how he arrived at these figures. The number of people killed matches that of the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The number of people injured, however, is slightly lower than the current Palestinian-supplied statistic, but matches a figure released by the health ministry earlier this month.

Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members or belonged to other Gaza terror groups.

Palestinian protesters wave their flag as they gather during a demonstration at the Israel-Gaza border, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 10, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Said KHATIB)

Liberman’s visit to the Gaza Division came a day after the top-level security cabinet met to discuss the ongoing violence in the Strip and the military and diplomatic options available to address it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with senior ministers at the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, known as the Kirya, on Sunday evening. Earlier in the day, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel will accept a full ceasefire from hamas and nothing less.

The meeting ended late Sunday, with no announcements or details released.

There was a significant drop in arson attacks from Gaza on Sunday.

On Sunday evening a spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services said that Sunday marked the first day in several months that no fires were caused by incendiary balloons flown from Gaza toward Israeli communities bordering the coastal enclave. However, he later said it appeared that at least one fire was started by the the arson devices.

Earlier Netanyahu warned Hamas that Israel will continue to operate against the terrorism stemming from Gaza, apparently confirming that no official ceasefire agreement had been reached with the terrorist group.

“We are in the midst of a campaign against terror in Gaza. It entails an exchange of blows; it will not end in one strike. Our demand is clear – a complete ceasefire. We will not suffice with less than this,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly full cabinet meeting.

A plume of smoke rises from the remains of a building west of Gaza City that was targeted by the Israeli Air Force in response to a rocket attack that hit southern Israel earlier in the day on August 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

The apparent truce came after two days of spiraling violence that saw the heaviest exchanges of fire between Israel and the Gaza terrorist organization since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. During the flareup Hamas fired over 180 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, with the IDF responding with approximately 150 airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

Senior Israeli officials have said that “quiet will be met by quiet,” implying that the country is not seeking an escalation of violence, but has not openly committed to an end to hostilities. Instead, military officials hope the terror group has internalized the damage Israel can cause to its infrastructure.

“Hamas understands very well what it has lost in the past few months; it can’t ignore it,” a senior IDF officer told the newspaper.

People stand next to a car that was damaged after a rocket fired by terrorists from the Gaza Strip fell in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on August 9, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Despite the apparent truce and reprieve in rocket fire, violence continued on the border over the weekend, and Israeli tanks struck two Hamas posts in the Gaza Strip Friday evening after a grenade was hurled at troops and amid intense violence during mass riots in several locations along the border.

Around 9,000 Palestinians participated Friday in violent weekly border protests. Some protesters rioted near the fence, threw makeshift bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and burned tires to create a smokescreen. In one incident a grenade was thrown at Israeli troops, but caused no casualties. Several attempts were made to breach the security fence.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said three Palestinians were killed in Friday’s violence.

Meanwhile, incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza have continued to plague Israeli border communities, with a large incendiary kite landing on power lines near Kibbutz Sufa on Friday, causing blackouts in surrounding homes.

A large incendiary kite launched from Gaza which was removed from power lines near Kibbutz Sufa, August 11, 2018. (Israel Electric Corporation)

On Saturday afternoon the IDF said it targeted a cell responsible for launching incendiary balloons in the northern Gaza Strip. Reports in Palestinian media said two people were injured in the Israeli strikes in El-Bureij.

Southern Israel has experienced hundreds of fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons flown over the border from Gaza in recent months. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Since March, there have been near-weekly, violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, leading to escalations involving rockets fire on Israel and reprisal air strikes.

The deadly border clashes have seen Israeli security forces facing gunfire, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and efforts — sometimes successful — to damage or penetrate the border fence. Last month, an Israeli soldier was killed by a sniper. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 150 Palestinian haves been killed in the violence. Hamas has admitted that many of fatalities were its or other Gaza terror groups.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story included a claim made by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that all those killed in the Gaza Strip since the start of the March of Return were members of the Hamas terror group. His office later retracted the remark, saying this was not the defense minister’s intention.

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