Hamas vows to restart attacks Friday if blockade not lifted

Terror group’s spokesman warns southern residents not to return to their homes; Israel says it is poised to respond as required

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Hamas supporters gather for a rally in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Thursday, August 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Palestinian Hamas supporters gather for a rally in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Thursday, August 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A Hamas official declared on Thursday that despite a 72-hour ceasefire and negotiations for a longer-term truce, the war with Israel was not yet done and the organization would continue fighting until all of its demands were met. “Our fingers are on the trigger and our rockets are trained at Tel Aviv,” he declared.

Spokesman Mushir al-Masri made the statements at a pro-Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip, attended by a crowd estimated at some two thousand.

“The war is not yet over,” he said. “We stress that the Palestinian people’s demands are legitimate, and we call on Egypt, on the Arab nations, and the international community to adopt them.”

In a statement issued Thursday evening, the Hamas military wing threatened to resume rocket fire at 8 a.m. Friday if the blockade of Gaza was not lifted by then.

Israeli officials said Israel was poised to respond as necessary to any resumption of attacks, and was taking the Hamas threats seriously, Channel 2 reported Thursday evening.

Nonetheless, Israel’s negotiators were heading back to talks in Cairo later Thursday with Israeli input which might enable an extension of the ceasefire, the TV report said.

Channel 2 said. IDF Chief Benny Gantz had said Wednesday that the IDF would retaliate strongly if the terror organization resumed its attacks on Israel, and that Israel is prepared to strike Hamas leaders when they emerge from hiding. “We will not hesitate to continue to mobilize our forces as necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens,” he said. “We aren’t done. If there are incidents, we will respond to them.”

In a threat apparently aimed at the residents of southern Israel, many of whom left their homes during the recent fighting to avoid persistent rocket strikes from Gaza and the threat of tunnel attacks, and whom he referred to as “settlers,” Hamas’s Masri told Thursday’s demonstration of the consequences should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuse Hamas’s demands.

“We say to the settlers: Don’t go back to your homes if Netanyahu doesn’t answer the demands of the resistance,” he said.

He said Hamas would never consider disarmament, as demanded by Israel and some in the international community, declaring: “We are not going to relinquish [our arms] until all our lands are liberated.”

Hamas would never forego its “sacred” weapons, and still had many “surprises” prepared for the enemy, he claimed.

Al-Masri also declared that Hamas was the clear victor in the confrontation with Israel. “Netanyahu failed,” he said. “Our rockets reached Tel Aviv and Hadera and even Nahariya” and “an Arab force infiltrated the occupied lands held by the Zionists and this is a strategic victory.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials were on Thursday engaged in indirect negotiations via Egyptian mediators in Cairo to hammer out an enduring ceasefire. On Thursday, an Egyptian security official said that the Palestinian delegation was refusing to compromise.

The Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the Palestinian delegation’s stance had hardened after the arrival in Cairo of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas officials Sami Abu Zuhri (right) and Mushir Al-Masri in Gaza (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
Hamas officials Sami Abu Zuhri (right) and Mushir Al-Masri in Gaza (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)

He said Azzam al-Ahmad, the leader of the delegation and the representative of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, had threatened to withdraw from the talks if the two militant groups do not show more “flexibility,” adding that the delegation, which was supposed to leave Cairo on Thursday, would stay through the weekend.

Palestinian delegates could not immediately be reached for comment.

A 72-hour ceasefire is due to end Friday morning and Hamas has rejected an Israeli offer to extend it.

A commander in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades told The Times of London (paywall) that the terrorist organization only used up a tenth of its rocket stockpile during the conflict and that it can penetrate the border with Israel again in the future.

Abu Laith, 43, made the assertions during an interview published on Thursday.

A Palestinian boy flashes the V-sign as he participates in a Hamas rally in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
A Palestinian boy flashes the V-sign as he participates in a Hamas rally in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Laith, who admitted he had only come out above ground because of the 72-hour truce that guaranteed his safety, said that, contrary to what the IDF might claim, Hamas is still well equipped with rockets.

“We prepared for a long battle,” he said. “We can target cities we have not even hit in this war. We can penetrate the Israeli border again. We have enough rockets, more than the enemy can imagine. We only fought with 10 per cent of our forces, the rest are on standby.”

The tunnels, a warren of subterranean passages that crisscross the Gaza Strip and even burrowed under the border with Israel, were a major tactical element in the fighting. Hamas has used the tunnels to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks, killing several IDF soldiers, and Israel has said it fears the tunnels could also be used to attack civilians in border towns.

“It was a completely different conflict to the ones in the past,” he explained. “In 2008 [Operation Cast Lead] the airstrike and air surveillance took us by surprise. That war cost us a lot, so we made strategic plans to move the battle from the surface to underground.”

The Times report said that having learned the hard way of the Israeli Air Force’s capabilities, Hamas chose to fight this round by staying below ground, out of sight. The low profile was also extended to the press, and Hamas was careful to keep its casualties away from journalists, spiriting the bodies of its fighters out of mortuaries before they could be identified.

In an effort to confound Israeli intelligence services, Laith said, 30,000 Hamas fighters were kept compartmentalized, each member only knowing only the identity of members of his own unit and immediate superiors.

“We’ve been accused of foreign funding but most of our weapons are made by Palestinians locally, despite being under siege,” he claimed.

Military equipment and materials were smuggled in via tunnels and from the sea, he said.

Much of the tunnel network remains intact, he asserted, although he conceded that some passageways had “partially collapsed.” Israel says it has destroyed all of the known tunnels in Gaza, over 30 in all.

Laith remained defiant and apparently keen to have his revenge on Israel.

“Israelis will feel the pain that Palestinians have,” he warned. “They must know that while we have no security in Gaza, they will have no security there.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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