In his first media interview since entering the position in June, the head of the army’s Southern Command sounded a pessimistic tone Sunday over prospects for an end to violence from Gaza.
“We won’t see complete quiet in the coming decade, or longer, if I can risk a long-term assessment,” Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Sunday in an interview with Radio Darom, which broadcasts to residents of southern Israel.
He was skeptical about efforts by UN diplomats and Egyptian officials to negotiate a ceasefire “arrangement” between Israel and Hamas, saying, “I think we must not delude ourselves. [Gaza] bustles with terrorism and is building up capabilities. We’re stronger than [Hamas] by orders of magnitude, but it will continue to test us from time to time.”
Israel was prepared to defend itself if attacked, he said. “A war is also a kind of ‘arrangement.’ Our interest is very clear: security for the residents of southern Israel.”
Halevi expressed support for establishing a seaport in the beleaguered enclave.
“I’m in favor of doing anything that will improve the civilian situation in Gaza, as long as it doesn’t strengthen Hamas,” he said. “We’re always looking to improve [Gaza’s condition], as long as it leaves the security situation of Israeli civilians and residents of the south in at least as good a shape as it is today.
“If there is a port that only brings in goods for Gaza’s civilians, and doesn’t allow entry of goods that will strengthen Hamas, then establishing it would be the right thing to do. It would also reduce hostility.”
He said preventing a Hamas infiltration of the border was his number-one priority.
“The top threat is infiltration by an enemy force, whether from underground or from the sea, or by any other means, without us being able to see it and prevent contact between [Israeli] citizens and Hamas. The next-highest threat is rockets, then the incendiary terrorism. I think our handling of the [incendiary] balloons was good. We have to take it in proportion. I’m satisfied that no one has been hurt.”
Asked if Israel should retake Gaza, which it left in the 2005 disengagement, to counter those threats, Halevi replied, “I don’t see how that would improve our security situation. We know how to take actions in the future, if we’re called upon to do so. That includes conquering Gaza. But I’m not sure it’s the wisest option to implement.”
Halevi’s interview came ahead of the Jewish new year, which begins Sunday night.
It followed the latest rioting along the border fence on Friday, and an attempted infiltration into Israel Saturday by four Gazans who carried a knife and an ax between them. The four were spotted by security forces as they attempted to breach the security fence along the border in northern Gaza.
“Our troops rushed to the location and arrested the suspects, who were transferred to the security forces for questioning,” the army said Saturday. The IDF did not indicate whether the Palestinians were affiliated with any Gaza-based terror group.
Separately, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza on Saturday announced that a 16-year-old Palestinian had died from wounds sustained by IDF gunfire during clashes with Israeli troops the day before.
Palestinian media outlets on Saturday released a video clip which they said showed the incident. (Warning: Graphic content.)
The ministry said Friday that a 17-year-old was also killed and that nearly 400 were wounded in the violent protests.
Around 7,000 Palestinians took part in the weekly clashes.
The IDF said demonstrators hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at soldiers, who responded with tear gas and other less-lethal means. Troops fired at Palestinians who attempted to breach the border fence and enter Israel.
The army said it struck two Hamas posts in the Strip. One was attacked in response to a grenade thrown toward troops along the border, while another was hit after protesters damaged military infrastructure.
Balloons with incendiary devices attached were again flown across the border, after being largely absent in recent weeks. Two fires broke out in Israel as a result of the arson attacks.
Friday’s protests were the first since the US announced it was cutting all aid to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian humanitarian assistance.
Recent weeks have seen far less violence at the border than at the height of the protests some months ago.
There have long been reports of talks on a UN- and Egypt-brokered truce agreement that would end the months-long flareup of hostilities — the most severe since the 2014 war.
The surge of violence in Gaza began in March with a series of protests along the border that were dubbed the “March of Return.” The clashes, which Gaza’s Hamas rulers orchestrated, have included rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as attempts to breach the border fence and attack Israeli soldiers.
Since the protests began in March, at least 127 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes, according to a tally from The Associated Press. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members. During that time, a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier.
During the demonstrations, protesters have also launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops and killed livestock. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.