Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday said the government’s “endgame” for Gaza was the toppling of its Hamas rulers to allow the Palestinian residents of the coastal enclave to enjoy the economic benefits of peace with Israel.
His comments came as Education Minister Naftali Bennett criticized the government for reportedly nearing a ceasefire deal with the terror group.
“Since the withdrawal [from Gaza in 2005] the Israeli public has been asking itself and the security cabinet a single question — what will be with the Gaza Strip in the end,” Liberman posted on Facebook. “Is there a solution? What is our endgame for the Gaza Strip — an area of some 365 square kilometers (140 square miles) with about two million inhabitants, one of the most overcrowded places in the world.”
He explained his goal was to “remove the Hamas terror group from power, or force it to change its approach, i.e., recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the principle of rebuilding in exchange for demilitarization.”
Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, said there were two ways of achieving this result — either a military campaign in which Israel would pay a heavy price in casualties, or his preferred approach: to entice the people of Gaza to overthrow their Hamas leadership.
“They will never be Zionists, but they would prefer the benefits of economic cooperation and a better standard of living in the Gaza Strip to non-stop confrontation, which results in the continued suffering of the majority of the population of Gaza,” he said of the Gaza population.
The defense minister said the key was not short-term decisions, but a long-term strategy on how to improve lives on both sides of the border.
Liberman took to social media shortly after his fellow security cabinet minister Bennett gave a speech rejecting any truce with Hamas and likening the terror group’s tactics to a mafia protection racket.
“About a hundred years ago, the Italian mafia opened its doors in the United States. Dressing up as a business, sabotaging the business, burning it, threatening the workers and then offering the business owner protection for a fee. They call it protection,” the head of the Jewish Home party said at the opening of the Ariel University Medical School. “That is what Hamas is trying to do to Israel today.”
He argued that any agreement with the terror group would ultimately lead to war.
“For 140 days, Hamas has burned our fields and settlements. It fires hundreds of rockets at our towns. Guns down our soldiers. And then tells us — here are our demands, if you abide by them we will stop,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, whoever gives in to them (and agrees to pay this protection) will bring us war.
“The State of Israel must not surrender to the threats of Hamas. Hamas must understand that it will pay a terrible price for any harm to Israeli citizens. Hamas must be afraid of hurting us, not profit from it,” added Bennett.
However, Bennett stressed that he was not advocating sending Israeli troops into the enclave to fight against Hamas.
“Not every attack from Hamas requires a ground incursion into Gaza. I object at this stage to such an incursion,” he said.
Liberman and Bennett have been engaged in an ongoing spat regarding Gaza and Israel’s security.
Meanwhile, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan defended the government’s efforts to prevent an escalation of hostilities in Gaza and avoid a ground operation.
Responding to some ministers who have demanded more aggressive airstrikes in response to incendiary balloon attacks from Gaza, he told Army Radio on Sunday morning that doing so could lead to a ground war in Gaza.
“We have to understand that Hamas will return fire with rockets and missiles on the Gaza periphery, and then we won’t have any choice but to launch a broad ground incursion into the Strip,” Erdan said.
On Friday, a Hamas official said that ceasefire talks with Israel were in the “final stretch,” though Liberman stressed that Jerusalem is not holding direct negotiations with the group.
The announcement from the Hamas official said Friday that negotiations for a long-term ceasefire deal mediated by Egypt and the United Nations are in “the final stretch.” Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV quoted Kahlil al-Hayya as saying the deal would follow understandings reached at the end of the 2014 war between the sides. He did not elaborate.
Al-Hayya added that Hamas supports reaching an accord.
Recent months have seen repeated rounds of intense violence between Israel and Hamas, along with weekly border protests at the Gaza border that have regularly included rioting, attacks on Israeli troops and attempts to infiltrate and sabotage the border fence.
At least 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.
One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.
In addition to the border clashes, southern Israel has experienced hundreds of fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons flown over the border from Gaza. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.