The security cabinet on Sunday decided to hold off on a wide-scale military offensive in the Gaza Strip for at least a week, despite warnings from the prime minister and defense minister 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 heeds the warnings from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman earlier on Sunday, and tamps down the violence, Hadashot television news reported.
After the four-hour meeting, Liberman indicated to the Kan public broadcaster that he supported a military operation in Gaza, saying that Israel had “exhausted all existing options” in dealing with the months of Hamas-orchestrated riots along the border.
“We have exhausted all existing options,” he said. “I don’t want Hamas leaders to be under any illusions, we are prepared to give the hardest blow possible.”
“What we saw last week requires us to redeploy,” Liberman said, but added that Israel did not need to fully conquer Gaza in order to inflict a harsh blow.
Military officials, however, were said to be opposed to an operation, according to the television report.
As cabinet ministers discussed the rising tensions in Gaza on Sunday afternoon, the IDF said it carried out a strike on a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons toward Israel from the northern Gaza Strip.
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.”
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.