'This is unacceptable. We won't continue with this game'

Defense minister warns Gazans not to riot along security fence

Liberman says Hamas is exploiting desperate Palestinians for terrorist purposes; also calls for diplomatic solution to dispute with Lebanon

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, speaks to IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a field just outside the Gaza Strip on February 20, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, speaks to IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a field just outside the Gaza Strip on February 20, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday warned Gazans that their rulers, the Hamas terrorist group, were taking advantage of them and endangering their lives by sending them to take part in demonstrations near the border with Israel. His comments came days after one such riot was used as cover for an improvised explosive device attack.

Echoing statements made by Israel’s military liaison the night before, Liberman said the army had “learned the lessons” from Saturday’s attack and would respond more aggressively in the future, though he declined to elaborate on what specific policies changes the military was adopting.

Liberman made his comments after a press briefing from the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command and Gaza Division in a field full of blazing red anemones near Kibbutz Kissufim, a few kilometers from the Palestinian enclave.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to the press in a field just outside the Gaza Strip on February 20, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Turning his attention to the north, Liberman also spoke to the ongoing disagreement between Israel and Lebanon regarding the rights to potential natural gas reserves in an area of the Mediterranean Sea known as Block 9, which each country claims as its own.

The negotiations between the two countries are ongoing, with the United States acting as a mediator, and Liberman encouraged a diplomatic resolution to the issue.

“But if the Lebanese don’t want a solution, and they want to keep arguing, they will only lose from it,” he said.

During the briefing, the defense minister heard from the IDF deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi; the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir; and the division commander, Brig. Gen. Yehuda Fox; as well as various senior officers from the Gaza Division, including its chief operations, intelligence and combat engineering officers.

Though Liberman had previously said the direct perpetrators of the IED attack were from the Palestinian Resistance Committees terrorist group, he said on Tuesday that Hamas, which rules the Strip, was also liable as it allowed the attack to take place.

“What’s clear is that Hamas is using the residents of the Gaza Strip as a cover for terrorist activities,” he said. “This is unacceptable. We won’t continue with this game.”

Illustrative. Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 22, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

The defense minister accused Hamas’s leaders of sending Gaza residents to take part in violent demonstrations while making sure their own family members never get close to the border. He also noted that the senior figures in the terrorist group enjoy a constant supply of electricity, while most Gaza residents get just a few hours a day.

The defense minister repeated a message he has expressed multiple times, that Hamas was deliberately maintaining poor living conditions in the enclave as a matter of policy.

“Hamas is the one preventing economic development in Gaza, preventing growth,” he said. “You have to understand: poverty and terrorism go hand in hand.”

The defense minister didn’t explicitly blame Iran — which financially supports Hamas and the second-largest terror group in the Strip, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — for recent unrest in Gaza, but implied that the Islamic Republic is playing a role in it.

Liberman said senior Hamas officials “live in Beirut, with Hezbollah’s blessing, and travel from Beirut to Tehran almost every other week in order to coordinate their activities — and most of the money Hamas is receiving comes from Iran.”

A military helicopter carrying IDF soldiers wounded in an explosion during a patrol along the Gaza border arrives at Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center on February 17, 2018. (Screen capture; Twitter)

Four IDF soldiers were injured on Saturday when the IED, disguised as a flag, detonated as they were removing it from the Gaza security fence near the city of Khan Younis. It had apparently been placed there during a recent violent demonstration.

In response to that attack, and to a rocket fired from Gaza that hit a home in southern Israel late Saturday night, the IDF conducted a large series of strikes against 18 targets in the Strip, including on an tunnel in Gaza City, Liberman said in the Knesset on Monday.

In a separate incident on Saturday night, an IDF tank fired on a group of Palestinians who the army said approached the security fence “in a suspicious manner,” killing two of them and seriously injuring two others.

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