Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday said a “hard blow” to the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group would return calm to southern Israel, as an internal Palestinian conflict and failed negotiations between Israel and Hamas threatened to bring about another war in the coastal enclave.
“The only way to bring back the quiet, without harming our deterrence and our resolve, is a hard blow — as much as possible — against Hamas. And I believe that an effort like this would buy us four or five years of calm,” Liberman said onstage at the Maariv newspaper’s conference in Jerusalem.
Liberman said a powerful strike at Hamas was the only way to end the violence along the border “even if this comes at the cost of this developing into a full-scale conflict.”
Asked if such a campaign would include the use of ground troops — something that would likely increase the number of Israeli casualties — the defense minister declined to answer, but warned that future wars would come with a higher death toll than previous ones.
“I’m not going to get into an operational discussion here, on stage. But I’m not going to limit myself,” he said.
“There will be a cost. And in every conflict to come, the costs will be higher,” Liberman said.
The defense minister clarified that this was not because the Israel Defense Forces were less prepared than in the past — “I think we’re in the highest level of combat readiness since 1967” — but said it was because “new weapons are being developed, deadlier weapons.”
In recent weeks, tensions in the Gaza Strip have been escalating, with the Hamas terror group turning once weekly riots along the border into daily events.
This uptick came as the Gaza-ruling Hamas and West Bank-based Palestinian Authority have squared off as reconciliation talks between the two appeared to be failing.
Efforts by Israel and Hamas to reach a sustained ceasefire agreement have similarly stalled.
On Sunday, the security cabinet decided to hold off on a wide-scale military offensive in the Gaza Strip for at least a week, despite comments from the prime minister and Liberman that Israel was poised to unleash a serious response to the recent surge in deadly violence along the border with the Palestinian enclave.
Ministers decided to wait and see if ruling terror group Hamas heeded the warnings from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Liberman earlier on Sunday, and tamped down the violence, Hadashot television news reported.
Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu issued his own sharp warning to Hamas, suggesting Israel could be on the brink of a full-blown military operation against Gaza’s rulers if violent riots along border fence persist.
“Hamas hasn’t understood the message,” Netanyahu told ministers and reporters at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday morning. “If they don’t stop the attacks they will be stopped in another way, which will be painful. Very painful.”
“We are very close to a different kind of activity that will include very powerful blows,” he threatened. “If Hamas has any brains, it will stop.”
Military officials, however, were said to be opposed to such an operation, according to a Kan television report.
The rising border tensions peaked on Friday amid heavy rioting at the fence separating Israel from Gaza. Seven Palestinians were killed, including three who breached the border fence and ran toward IDF soldiers during the chaotic unrest.
On Saturday, Liberman halted all fuel deliveries into the Gaza Strip “until violence in the Gaza Strip stops entirely.”
The suspension came just days after a United Nations-brokered a $60 million deal to supply the territory with Qatari-bought fuel came into effect, in a bid to alleviate conditions in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
Since March, Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, has orchestrated near-weekly protests along the fence, which have seen repeated violent clashes between Palestinian rioters and IDF troops. Some 155 Palestinians have been killed, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members.
The protests have also seen Palestinians sending incendiary devices attached to balloons into Israeli territory, sparking fires that have scorched over 7,000 acres of land and caused millions of shekels in damage.
On Friday, Israel said 14,000 Palestinians thronged the border fence areas, burning tires and throwing rocks, firebombs and grenades at soldiers stationed atop earth mounds on the other side of the barrier.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said seven Palestinians were killed in the clashes, and another 140 were injured by live fire.
In the most serious incident, the IDF said soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians who had blown a hole in the border fence and rushed an army post.
Israel fears further deterioration in Gaza could lead to another war on the southern border, and facilitated the Qatari fuel delivery, hoping it would help ease months of protests and clashes.
Tamar Pileggi and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.