Improving the bleak living conditions in the Gaza Strip is contingent upon the return of two Israeli civilians, and the remains of two slain IDF soldiers, being held captive in the coastal enclave, the head of the army’s Southern Command said Monday.
“We have the utmost responsibility to bring back the captives and the IDF soldiers — the improvement of Gaza Strip residents’ situation is dependent upon this as well,” Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir told a conference in the southern town of Sderot.
During the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas terrorists captured the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. In the following year, two apparently mentally ill Israeli civilians, Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, entered the Gaza Strip of their own volition and were taken captive by Hamas.
Israel has called for the civilians and slain soldiers to be returned, but Hamas has insisted that Israel release many convicted terrorists from prison before negotiations can even begin, something that Israel refuses to do.
With his remarks on Monday, the Southern Command chief also joined a chorus of senior Israeli defense officials who have made similar statements blaming the living conditions for Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, which enjoys only a few hours of electricity per day, on the Hamas terrorist group.
In his speech to Sderot’s Sapir College, Zamir said that such exploitation of civilians can also be seen in terrorist groups’ use of protests along the security fence as cover for conducting clandestine activities, like the installation of an improvised explosive device that injured four soldiers last month.
“This is further proof of Hamas’s use of civilians and weekly protests that occur along the fence, as cover for carrying out terror attacks in order to distract the attention of those civilians from [Hamas’s] many failures,” Zamir said.
“We will remain determined against these protests and any attempt by Hamas to encourage masses to approach the security fence,” he added.
The Southern Command chief reiterated the assessment of Israeli defense officials that Hamas is growing closer to Iran and its proxy Hezbollah.
“Hamas is strategically confused and is playing a dangerous game by getting closer to the evil access of Iran and Hezbollah,” he said.
The general said that in recent years the army has destroyed a number of attack tunnels dug by terrorist groups in the Strip, but that the “threats on our borders have not been removed.”
As such, Zamir said the army needs to be “prepared for war.”
Tensions have been high along the Gaza border since the four soldiers were wounded in the bomb attack last month.
In response to the IED attack, and to a rocket fired from Gaza that hit a home in southern Israel later that night, the IDF conducted a large series of strikes against 18 targets in the Strip, including on a tunnel in Gaza City, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the time.
An Egyptian intelligence delegation currently in the Gaza Strip told the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers that, should they seek out an escalation of violence with Israel, they would be “playing with fire,” Hebrew media reported on Saturday, citing Palestinian sources.
According to the sources, the Egyptian delegation warned Hamas that another round of violence would invite a “hard blow” by Israel against the Palestinian terror group, “so much so that there is even a possibility [Israel would] topple Hamas,” Hadashot TV news reported.
It was not clear if the warning was issued by Israel and the message was delivered through Egypt, or if Cairo itself was cautioning Hamas.