Israel must find better ways of dealing with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip than to submit to endless rounds of violence, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday evening.
Lapid was speaking at a state ceremony in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery to commemorate the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who were killed during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. The somber event was attended by the families of those killed in the conflict eight years ago, as well as by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also spoke at the ceremony, and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy.
“For a long time, the only two options on the table were occupying Gaza or endless rounds of fighting,” Lapid said. “Our job is to find better solutions. The IDF’s strength enables us freedom of action in Gaza, but also economic and diplomatic freedom of action.”
Lapid said Israel must “make the civilian population in Gaza realize that they can live a different life. To pressure Hamas to stop firing at Israel. To that end, we have increased the number of permits for working in Israel that are issued to the residents of Gaza, and we continue to promote the ‘Economy-for-Security’ plan,” in reference to Israeli efforts to help the Gazan economy in return for security assurances.
In their respective speeches, Lapid and Gantz honored the memories of those killed in action during the 50-day conflict with Gaza-based terror organizations, chief among them Hamas, the ruling organization that is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
A total of 74 people — 68 IDF soldiers, 11 of whom were killed in cross-border tunnel attacks, and six civilians — died on the Israeli side of the conflict. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed, with Israel putting the number of civilians killed at approximately 50 percent, the rest being combatants.
The bodies of two soldiers killed in the operation — Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul — were captured by Hamas and remain in Gaza as the bargaining chips for a prisoner exchange with Israel, alongside two living captives: Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed. The two Israeli civilians crossed the Gaza boundary voluntarily between 2014 and 2015 and have been held prisoner by Hamas since then. Both men have histories of mental illness. Hamas recently released footage of al-Sayed, saying his health has been deteriorating, with Israel dismissing the move as psychological warfare.
Israel and Hamas have held several rounds of indirect talks over the years, in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal that would see the release of Palestinian security prisoners, including terror convicts.
In his speech Sunday, Lapid said that Israel has “a sacred obligation to bring home our fallen soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, for burial.”
The premier also called for more unity among Israelis, reiterating comments he made last week about the need for all Israelis to come together.
“On the battlefield and in cemeteries, there is no right or left. It is not important who is secular or religious, Druze or Jewish,” he said.
“The fallen soldiers of Operation Protective Edge did not die only for Israeli society to break apart from within,” said Lapid. “If we can die for each other, we must know how to live for each other. If we can fight the enemy together, we should be able to fight together for a common good.”
Lapid concluded: “On this day, in these times, when domestic divisions and rifts threaten Israeli society, I look around this cemetery and remind us all — that the things that bind us together are greater than those that pull us apart. Our strength is in our unity.”
In his speech, Gantz — who served as IDF chief of staff at the time of the operation — said Israel destroyed Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure and dealt a heavy blow to the terror organization, but paid a heavy price.
The soldiers who died in Gaza “left us a mission — to protect the State of Israel, to protect Israeli society, to continue to work for its growth in all ways,” said Gantz.
Israel continues to respond to rockets and acts of violence from Gaza to preserve “deterrence through powerful responses to any violation of sovereignty,” he said. At the same time, Israel maintains contacts and dialogue with countries such as Egypt, which has served as mediator a number of times, and Qatar, which financially supports Hamas, as well as others, to maintain quiet and head off the next escalation.
“We will continue to turn every stone, and take every action to maintain peace and stability,” said Gantz.
The defense minister vowed to continue working for the return of the remains of Goldin and Shaul, and the living captives.
Gantz also noted the kidnapping and murders in the weeks before Operation Protective Edge of Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, and Naftali Fraenkel by a Hamas-linked cell in the West Bank — an act that served as a precursor to the 2014 summer war. Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank immediately after the kidnapping, in the hope of locating the teens and capturing the terror operatives.
Gantz wrapped up his address by saying that Israel has “nothing against the residents of Gaza.”
“This is Hamas working against them, against their interests. It is Hamas that…trades in blood, and holds captive innocent civilians, including those with mental disabilities,” he said.