The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas on Wednesday threatened to renew intense fighting against Israel if the Jewish state “violates” the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and downplayed damage to its military infrastructure following the 11-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.
“What has happened is but a drill for what will come if Israel violates the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the terror group’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, said on Wednesday, days after a ceasefire entered effect. “The occupation must know — Al-Aqsa has men who will defend it.”
Violent clashes between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police at the Jerusalem holy site in early May preceded the Hamas rocket barrage on Israeli cities and towns that began the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The Hamas leader also said he would welcome Israel killing him in a targeted strike.
“The greatest gift Israel can give me is to assassinate me,” he said. “I prefer to die a martyr from an F-16 than to die of coronavirus or [another] disease.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, Sinwar said 80 operatives were killed during the 11-day war with Israel that ended last week, providing the group’s first official tally for losses sustained in the fighting. Sinwar said those killed included 57 members of his group’s armed wing, 22 members of the smaller Islamic Jihad group and one member of a small group called the Popular Resistance Committees.
Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry has put the number of Palestinians killed in the fighting at 254, including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 people above the age of 60. It does not differentiate between terror group members and civilians and did not give a breakdown. The Israeli military maintained that it killed some 225 terrorist operatives and that the Palestinian death toll was in fact considerably higher than was reported.
Israel says any civilian casualties are unintended and that the army takes great effort to avoid them. It accuses Hamas of putting civilians in danger by launching rockets from residential areas and inviting Israeli reprisals. They also note that Hamas rockets are fired indiscriminately toward Israeli population centers.
In a separate speech Wednesday, Sinwar also vowed not to touch “a single cent” of international aid to rebuild Gaza following its war with Israel that ravaged the enclave it rules. Sinwar promised “transparent and impartial” distribution of aid.
Diplomatic efforts are underway to solidify a fragile Egypt-brokered truce that halted the fighting, with plans to rebuild the Gaza Strip where Israeli airstrikes damaged infrastructure and leveled buildings.
“We welcome any international or Arab effort to rebuild the Gaza Strip,” Sinwar told a news conference in Gaza City.
“I affirm our commitment not to take a single cent intended for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts,” he said. “We have never taken a cent in the past.”
Sinwar said that Gaza has “sufficient financial resources… a large part of which are from Iran, and another part comes from Arab and Muslim donors and free people of the world who stand in solidarity with our people and their rights.”
During a visit to Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that all aid would be “administered in a way that benefits the Palestinian people — not Hamas.”
Sinwar added: “I say to Blinken and to everyone else: enough playing with our internal divides. We know how to solve our problems internally. Enough cultivating of internal conflict. We will make way for anyone who wants to rebuild in Gaza or improve the economic situation.”
An Israeli Defense Ministry official said all funds to Gaza would have to flow through an international “mechanism” to reach people directly, to prevent the terror group from replenishing its rocket arsenal.
The latest military confrontation with Hamas ended in a ceasefire early Friday. It began on May 10 when Hamas launched a massive rocket barrage on Israeli cities, sparking IDF retaliatory strikes and 11 days of fighting, leaving 13 dead in Israel and over 240 fatalities in Gaza. The Israeli army said most of those killed in Gaza were terror combatants.
Over 4,000 rockets were fired at Israeli cities, according to the IDF, sending civilians throughout the center and south of the country rushing to bomb shelters at all hours of day and night and leaving hundreds of Israelis injured.
Hamas is an Islamic militant group that openly seeks Israel’s destruction. It has fought four wars and numerous skirmishes against Israel since seizing control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
In his address, Sinwar also praised Arab Israeli riots in which Jewish Israelis and their property were attacked during the conflict. He claimed there are “10,000 suicide bombers in Israel” willing to respond to any Israeli “violations” in Jerusalem.
He said Arab Israelis “have proven that so-called ‘Israelification’ — the attempt to turn them into Israeli citizens rather than Palestinians — “and ‘coexistence’ have fallen once and for all.”
Sinwar also dismissed an Israeli operation to bomb Hamas’s underground network of tunnels, which its terrorists use for military operations. Statements by the Israeli military during the fighting led foreign journalists to believe that an Israeli ground invasion had begun, reportedly in the hope that Hamas fighters would enter the tunnels to prepare for war.
The IDF later denied misleading anyone, saying the statements were made erroneously. Hebrew media later reported that the operation had been less successful than hoped: relatively few Hamas fighters had entered the tunnels before they were bombed.
“It was clear to our military intelligence that this was a deception, and that there was no ground invasion,” Sinwar said.
Hamas’s public works ministry said 258 buildings — around 1,042 residential and commercial units — were destroyed by the Israeli air campaign. Another 769 units were severely damaged, rendering them uninhabitable, and 14,536 suffered minor damage. Seventeen hospitals were damaged, as well as 53 schools.
Over 100,000 people were internally displaced during the hostilities, according to the UN. While many have since been able to return to their dwellings, others have been left homeless.
The Israeli military says it does not target civilian structures and takes pains to minimize harm to noncombatants. It maintains it is forced to operate in civilian areas because Palestinian terror groups fire rockets at Israel from inside Gaza’s densely packed cities.