Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the West Bank constitutes a “declaration of war,” a spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said in a speech on Thursday.
“The resistance considers this decision to be a declaration of war upon the Palestinian people. The resistance will be the loyal and dutiful guard of the people throughout this war, acting in defense of our people, our land, and our holy sites. We will make the enemy bite his fingers in remorse for this sinful decision,” the spokesperson, known by his nom de guerre Abu Obeida, said in the speech.
“And those who oppress will come to know by what overturning they will be overturned,” Abu Obeida continued, citing a verse from the Quran.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz fired back hours later in a warning to Hamas leaders.
“I suggest they remember that they’ll be the first ones to pay for any aggression,” he said during a ceremony for graduates of the air force’s pilot course. “The IDF is the strongest army in the region and the price for any attempt to harm Israeli civilians will be strong and painful.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plan, which is slated to be launched as early as July 1, has provoked widespread international criticism. But Israel’s volatile border with Gaza has remained relatively quiet. Demonstrations have been held in the Strip against the plan and a lone rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel last week, landing in an open field and causing no casualties. But Hamas and Israel have so far avoided a serious — and potentially deadly — escalation.
Abu Obeida’s speech, according to Hamas-linked media, was given in honor of the anniversary of the June 25, 2006, kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was held by Hamas for more than five years before being released in 2011 in a prisoner exchange deal with Israel that saw 1,027 Palestinians freed.
“[The day of the kidnapping] was an immortal day of power and glory, and an important turning in the history of the resistance and of the Palestinian people as a whole,” Abu Obeida said.
The Gaza-based terror group currently holds captive two Israelis who entered Gaza — Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war: Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
Abu Obeida reaffirmed Hamas’s willingness to come to a new exchange with Israel for the two Israelis and the soldiers’ remains. In April 2020, Israeli officials confirmed to Channel 12 that Jerusalem was conducting talks with Hamas for a potential exchange, but no public progress has been made since.
At the time, Hamas officials were said to have demanded two rounds of prisoner releases — the first round of 250 prisoners in exchange for information on the captives, the second in exchange for the actual delivery to Israel of the prisoners and the soldiers’ bodies. Israel refused the demands at the time.
Despite this, Hamas was capable of making Israel pay “unprecedented costs” in a potential prisoner exchange deal, Abu Obeida said.
“The achievement of a new prisoner exchange with the occupation rests at the top of our priorities. We remind the occupiers: No deal can go forward without the great leaders and heroic prisoners whose hands are tattooed with the blood of the occupiers,” Abu Obeida said.
Hamas official spokesman Fawzi Barhoum later commented on Abu Obeida’s speech, threatening, “These statements are an affirmation that should the Israeli occupation proceed with this new blunder in implementing its annexation plan, the next stage will not resemble the one that preceded it.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.