Meeting southern mayors, PM again warns of possible Gaza op before elections

Meeting southern mayors, PM again warns of possible Gaza op before elections

Local officials demand ‘change of policy,’ say sporadic rocket fire and airborne arson attacks have become intolerable

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud party event in Lod, on February 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud party event in Lod, on February 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday met with mayors from southern Israel over the spiraling violence around the Gaza Strip, and again warned that Israel could launch a military operation against Palestinian terror groups in the restive enclave before the March 2 election.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu updated the regional council heads on the latest developments related to Gaza and said we are prepared for all scenarios, including a wide-scale operation,” a statement from the premier’s office said of his meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday with the mayor of Sderot and heads of the Sdot Negev, Eshkol, Hof Ashkelon, and Sha’ar Hanegev regional councils.

The meeting came after rocket fire renewed overnight from Gaza, prompting retaliatory Israeli raids.

The mayors of the Gaza-adjacent communities demanded a “change of policy vis-a-vis terror groups in Gaza.”

An Israeli interceptor missile from the Iron Dome defense system is fired above the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on November 13, 2019, to intercept incoming short-range rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“In the past two years we have been experiencing a war that we can no longer ignore,” they said in a joint statement. “In the past month alone, we have absorbed dozens of rockets and at the same time, the balloon terrorism from the Strip has grown more serious and more dangerous.”

The mayors also addressed rumors of a looming ceasefire deal between Israel and the Gaza terror groups, saying “any talk of an arrangement is entirely removed from [the reality] on the ground.”

The prime minister earlier this month cautioned that a military campaign could be launched before the election. In September, Netanyahu issued a similar warning that a war could break out before the previous national vote that month. That threat came shortly after he was pulled offstage in southern Israel during a campaign event due to rocket fire. The scene repeated itself later last year, in December, when the prime minister was similarly rushed to shelter.

Palestinian terrorists fired at least two rockets at southern Israel on Saturday night, apparently hitting open fields and causing no injuries, despite recent reports from both sides of the border of a ceasefire agreement, the military said. In response, Israeli jets carried out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight Saturday, targeting Hamas installations.

The rockets appeared to strike outside the community of Kibbutz Kissufim, just east of the Gaza border, in the Eshkol region. Residents of the area reported hearing the sound of an explosion.

The army later announced that it had canceled the reissuing of some 500 permits allowing businessmen out of Gaza, an increase on the fishing zone, and an agreement to allow cement to be imported into the Strip. These measures had been agreed to by Israel in exchange for the cessation of attacks, an Israeli defense official told reporters on Thursday.

Saturday’s rocket fire came amid reports of an emerging ceasefire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, following weeks of tensions and low-level clashes around the border, with regular rocket attacks and the daily launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into the country’s south.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device floats after being released near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The potential breakthrough between Israel and the terror group came after the Egyptian military and the United Nations intervened last week, sending in delegations on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.

Al-Akhbar, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, reported on Tuesday that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”

The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm is not restored.

Last week, Israeli politicians publicly threatened a harsh military response if attacks from the Gaza Strip continued.

Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and that Palestinian leaders have rejected.

No Israelis have been injured directly by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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