Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told municipal leaders in the Gaza area on Wednesday that Israel could launch extensive military operations in the Palestinian enclave before the upcoming Knesset elections if Palestinian terrorists continued launching rockets and airborne explosive devices at southern Israel.
Netanyahu told the council chairmen that while Israel is making significant efforts to ensure calm in the area, the military is ready for an operation in Gaza if needed, according to Hebrew media reports.
The comments came after a week of near-daily rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza and dozens of balloon-borne explosive devices being launched from the Hamas-ruled Strip toward southern Israel.
However, the Ynet news site reported that Netanyahu only met with the southern municipal leaders who are also members of Likud, sparking fury among those not present at the sit-down.
In September, Netanyahu made a similar warning that a war could break out before the national vote that month. That threat came shortly after he was pulled off stage 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.
Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, traded barbs on Wednesday over the tensions in Gaza.
Gantz is “cute, but not a leader,” remarked Netanyahu of the former IDF chief of staff, who worked alongside him in the 2014 Gaza war.
“I suggest Netanyahu first apply [Israeli] sovereignty to Netivot, Sderot and the Gaza border region,” shot back Gantz, referring to the prime minister’s campaign promises to annex areas of the West Bank, and listing southern cities under fire.
Earlier Wednesday, the Israeli military announced it was reducing the size of the Gaza fishing zone by a third in light of the continued rocket fire and arson attacks.
“Following security consultations, it has been decided today (Wednesday), to restrict the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip from 15 nautical miles to 10 nautical miles, starting from 4 p.m. until further notice,” the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians said in a statement.
In its statement, COGAT said Israel holds the Hamas terror group — the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip — responsible for the attacks.
Israel routinely restricts the Gaza fishing zone in response to terrorist activities in the Strip, which some human rights groups decry as a form of collective punishment.
The military most recently imposed limits on the fishing area in December following a rocket attack from the Strip.
In one of the rocket attacks last week, a three-week-old Israeli infant was seriously injured after she was accidentally dropped while her mother ran into a bomb shelter.
In response to the launches, all of which have struck open fields in southern Israel, the IDF has conducted airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli defense officials believe that Hamas is either carrying out or allowing these attacks to be carried out in order to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in ongoing ceasefire negotiations.
Tensions between Israel and Gaza have been steadily rising over the past two weeks, after several months of relative calm. Fears have mounted in recent days of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last week of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel.
Late last month a senior Hamas official said the recent string of balloons was a signal to Israel to accelerate unofficial “understandings” meant to ease the blockade on the territory ruled by the terror group.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.