Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Monday that Israel could begin a major operation to stem rocket fire and other attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, despite elections being only a week away.
Netanyahu’s threat, which echoed statements he has made before, came as Islamic Jihad terrorists renewed rocket fire on Israel’s south, launching over a dozen rockets and drawing reprisal airstrikes in the Strip.
“Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad need to understand that this will not continue. If they do not stop the fire altogether, not just for a day or two but in general, then we will have to implement the wide-ranging campaign plan we have prepared,” Netanyahu said during a tour of the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
“There are new, surprising things in it that were in neither [operation] Cast Lead nor Pillar of Defense nor Protective Edge,” he added, referring to the Gaza wars of 2008-9, 2012 and 2014
Netanyahu later held an emergency meeting with security chiefs in Tel Aviv, the second in as many days, after violence erupted on the restive border on Sunday with Israel saying it killed an Islamic Jihad terrorist planting a bomb along the border fence.
“The prime minister ordered the continuation of the operation against terror organizations in Gaza,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said after the meeting.
Earlier on Monday, the prime minister told Radio Jerusalem that he “will not compromise Israel’s security for political reasons,” a likely reference to upcoming elections.
The Israel Defense Forces launched a series of airstrikes against Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip on Monday, after the terror group fired at least 14 rockets at southern Israel earlier in the day, the military said.
The border clashes came despite reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to broker a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett also said Monday that a large-scale operation could be in the offing.
“We are preparing a plan to fundamentally change the situation in the Gaza Strip,” Bennett told a conference in Jerusalem. “I really understand the situation of the people of the south. They deserve peace and security.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that he believes the government is “closer than ever to a decision to launch a large-scale operation” in the Gaza Strip.
“It isn’t ideal to make such a decision on election week, but it needs to be made as early as possible by the prime minister and the cabinet,” Erdan told the Kan public broadcaster.
He added that the situation in Gaza has become “unbearable.”
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of the Blue and White party attacked the government for its inaction on Gaza over the past two years as the country has repeatedly gone to the polls in an attempt to relieve the political deadlock. Israel is set to vote for a third time on March 2.
“What has happened in the past two years has been softness by the State of Israel because of the elections. The policy against Gaza should be with a stick, and the stick should be big,” Ya’alon told Kan.
Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, referring to the cash payments from Qatar to Hamas in his criticism of the government on Gaza, saying that “the attempt to buy quiet at all costs has failed.”
“The time has come for a change in policy,” he added.
With Israel’s approval, Qatar since 2018 has periodically provided millions of dollars in cash to Hamas to pay for fuel for the Strip’s power plant, allow the group to pay its civil servants and provide aid to tens of thousands of impoverished families.
Israel has reportedly done so in exchange for Hamas ensuring calm in the south and as part of efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire with the terror group.
Liberman, the former defense minister, has accused Netanyahu of paying protection money to Hamas in the past (despite the payments having started during Liberman’s time in office).
The uptick in violence began after an irregular clash along the Gaza border on Sunday in which Israeli troops shot dead a member Palestinian Islamic Jihad as he planted an improvised explosive device along the border, the army said. The Israeli military then retrieved his body, using a bulldozer.
The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday evening, the Islamic Jihad and other terror groups fired some 30 rockets at Israel, approximately half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rest landed in open fields. Some shrapnel caused light property damage, but no injuries were reported.
The IDF retaliated with airstrikes on Islamic Jihad facilities in both Syria and Gaza. Two members of the terror group were killed in the airstrikes outside Damascus along with four other pro-Iranian fighters, according to a Britain-based Syrian war monitor. A number of Islamic Jihad operatives were also injured by an IDF airstrike in Gaza as they prepared to launch rockets at Israel, the military said.
Abu Hamza, a spokesperson for the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad military wing, said Monday that Israel’s strikes on Damascus “will not pass fleetingly,” adding: “The fight is not over.”