'The 70-year-old Israel is invincible,' chief of staff says

IDF chief: 100 snipers authorized to use live fire during Gaza march

Gadi Eisenkot warns army could use ‘a lot of force’ to keep protesters from the border; says ‘high chance’ of military conflict with the Palestinians this year

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot addresses the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on July 5, 2017. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot addresses the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on July 5, 2017. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Israel has deployed more than a hundred snipers to deal with a Palestinian march expected to begin on Friday and will authorize them to open fire if it is determined that Israeli lives are in danger, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told Hebrew-language media in a series of interviews published Wednesday on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover and ahead of the state’s 70th anniversary.

In separate interviews with Israel’s three most prominent Hebrew dailies, Eisenkot said he had ordered over a thousand covert operations outside the country, called the Jewish state “invincible,” and added he has no intention of entering politics after his tenure is over, as several of his predecessors have done.

The most pressing issue referred to by Eisenkot was the six-week-long “March of Return” announced earlier this month. Palestinian groups are planning to construct a tent city across from the Gaza security fence and have called on tens of thousands of Gaza residents to participate in what they described as a “peaceful protest.”

“If the Palestinians think they will organize a march and it will pass the [border] fence and they will march into our territory, they’re wrong,” Eisenkot told the Israel Hayom daily.

The “March of Return” is set to begin on Friday with “Land Day,” which marks the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and the ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover holiday.

Palestinians help evacuate an injured protester during clashes with Israeli troops, near Khan Yunis, by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, on March 9, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

The protests will continue until May 15, the day after the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

“A big portion of the army will be invested there,” Eisenkot told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, adding that over a hundred snipers, most from “special units,” have been stationed in the area.

“If there will be a danger to lives, we will authorize live fire,” he declared. “The orders are to use a lot of force.”

Hamas, the terror group which rules the Gaza Strip, has warned Israel against targeting the protesters. Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official, said “the occupation should not commit any stupidity in confronting the Palestinian crowds. When we march to the border, the organizers will decide then what to do.”

While contending that the biggest threat to Israel comes from Iran, the IDF chief of staff said there was a high chance for a military confrontation this year with the Palestinians.

An Israeli soldier watches the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, March 2, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel is taking great efforts to prevent such a war this year, Eisenkot told Yedioth. Nonetheless, he assessed the chances of a war breaking out this year as “higher than in my first three years in office.”

There are many different factors that have combined to form a “very complicated reality” on the Gaza front, Eisenkot told Haaretz, including “Land Day, Nakba Day, our independence day celebrations, the US embassy relocation to Jerusalem, the nearing of the end of [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas’s era, the stalled [intra-Palestinian] reconciliation process and the fact that Hamas is in a grave crisis.”

Eisenkot described the situation in the Gaza Strip as very difficult, but not yet as a humanitarian crisis.

“We are investing great efforts to improve that,” he told Haaretz. “There is a distinct Israeli interest for them not to collapse.”

He added that the outgoing Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, was “traveling around the globe over the past month to bring resources” to the Strip.

“It’s in our interest to preserve the current security reality at least until the end of the year, to enable the completion of defense infrastructure to counter the tunnels,” he told Israel Hayom, referring to passages constructed by the Hamas terror group to infiltrate into Israeli territory.

The chief of staff also told Yedioth that during his time in office, the military has performed over a thousand covert actions beyond Israel’s borders, calling them “creative operations exceeding all imagination.”

“In its 70th year, the State of Israel enjoys an improved strategic balance with huge advantages over its enemies,” he added. “The 70-year-old Israel is invincible.”

AP contributed to this report.

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