Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Sunday that as Israel looks to stave off future rounds of conflict in the Gaza Strip, it should strive to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and direct Gaza reconstruction efforts through the PA, rather than Hamas, which rules the enclave.
However, Gantz said Israel would not permit a full reconstruction of Gaza until Hamas returns two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers that have been held captive by the terror group for over six years.
“The most desirable change in my view is to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as much as possible, and not to let Hamas be the one that sets the agenda, not in the area of the Gaza Strip nor in Gaza itself,” he said.
Asked if that represented only his view or if it was also the opinion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz said it was the former.
“I don’t know what Netanyahu thinks,” he said.
Militarily, Gantz said the 11 days of fighting that ended early Friday were successful at significantly weakening Hamas and its military capabilities. Going forward, he stressed the importance of responding more forcefully if and when Hamas or other terror groups in the Strip choose to again attack Israel, though the defense minister acknowledged that this would not necessarily mean retaliating for every single act of aggression. He also said the military should be prepared to initiate strikes against Hamas in some cases.
The way to strengthen the PA and sideline Hamas, according to Gantz, was to bring on board as many Arab states as possible — particularly those in Gulf, as well as Egypt and Jordan — in addition to the US and European Union. Significantly, Gantz singled out the involvement of Qatar, with which Israel does not have formal relations and which is close with Turkey. Doha has served as a key broker between Israel and Hamas in recent years, providing — and sometimes withholding — financial aid to the terror group and civil servants in the Strip.
“But I distinguish between basic humanitarian aid like the food, water, and electricity that people need, and a much higher level of humanitarian aid that must be contingent upon the [return of the] captives,” Gantz said.
The defense minister did not explain the precise mechanisms that would be used to bring aid into Gaza without enriching the Hamas terror group in the process, an issue that has been a regular challenge for countries and organizations looking to invest in the Strip.
Gantz said that it was impossible to keep Hamas from rebuilding by taking advantage of “dual-use” materials like cement. “I am not naïve about the fact that some of the materials that will go in, even after we supervise them, will ultimately be used by Hamas.”
He said that while Hamas has been struggling to smuggle in weapons to Gaza, it was becoming increasingly capable of producing munitions in the Strip.
The government is in the midst of discussions about how to ensure money and supplies that reach Gaza are not used by Hamas. Teams in the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office were working on the problem, he said, and a discussion with Netanyahu on the issue will take place Monday.
On Friday at 2 a.m., Israel and Hamas entered a mutual ceasefire, ending the fourth round of major fighting between the two groups in just over a decade. Hamas maintained that the truce agreement included Israeli concessions regarding the Temple Mount and plans to evict a number of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a claim that Israeli officials unequivocally denied.
With polls showing Israelis were largely unhappy with the outcome of the fighting, some politicians offered promises on Sunday that Israel would be less tolerant in future of Hamas rocket attacks.
Finance Minister Israel Katz, a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel would respond to rocket fire by targeting Hamas leaders.
Speaking with Army Radio Katz said Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and the head of its military wing, Muhammad Deif, should know that if rockets are launched, even by accident, “their heads will be cut off.” Any fire on the south will prompt “targeted strikes” on the leaders of Hamas, he said, adding that rocket fire on the southern cities of Sderot and Ashkelon — both targeted by many hundreds of projectiles during the recent fighting — will now be considered no different from rocket fire at Tel Aviv.
“The moment there is fire on any community, we will retaliate with full force, even if we know it’ll lead to fire on Tel Aviv,” he said.
Katz’s comments echoed those of senior military officials who suggested in recent days that future escalations would see concerted efforts to target leaders of the terror group.
In this month’s fighting, Hamas and other terror groups fired more than 4,300 rockets toward Israel while the Israel Defense Forces responded with roughly 1,500 airstrikes against targets in Gaza.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and teens, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between terror group members and civilians. 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. It said some of the civilian fatalities were caused by Hamas rockets falling short and landing in the Strip.
Thirteen people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.
The fighting began May 10, when Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem. Palestinian terror groups tied rocket fire from Gaza to unrest in Jerusalem connected to both aggressive actions by Israeli police on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending evictions of the Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.