PM says Israel ready to expand Gaza operation despite bid to limit conflict

Netanyahu tells southern municipal leaders that IDF currently ‘has the upper hand,’ but military stresses that it is remaining focused on targeting Islamic Jihad

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a security cabinet meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2023. (Avi Ohayan/GPO)
In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a security cabinet meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2023. (Avi Ohayan/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the heads of southern municipalities that they should be prepared for the possibility that the current military operation in Gaza could significantly expand, even as defense officials signaled that Israel was seeking to keep the conflict from snowballing.

“We are prepared for the possibility of the expansion of the operation, and for very heavy strikes, at this moment, as well as in the future,” Netanyahu said in a phone call with municipal chiefs, according to footage distributed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Overall I think that we have the upper hand, but obviously you are on the front line of this, and I appreciate your support,” Netanyahu added in the phone call.

Cities and towns bordering Gaza and as far away as Tel Aviv were targeted by nearly 300 rockets Wednesday afternoon, though many fell short or were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. The attacks came a day after Israel launched an intense offensive against the Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza.

Military officials have stressed that Operation Shield and Arrow is currently focused solely on eliminating Islamic Jihad targets and is not aiming at Hamas, signaling that it did not seek a fight with the terror group which controls Gaza. Observers have speculated that Israel will face stiffer resistance and more intense rocket barrages should Hamas decide to enter the fight.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant are slated to hold an assessment Wednesday evening to discuss the ongoing operation.

So far, thousands of residents of the communities bordering Gaza have left the area, with some evacuated by the Defense Ministry amid concerns of heavy rocket fire.

Israeli soldiers block a road near the border with Gaza, southern Israel, on May 10, 2023. (Flash90)

Gallant said Wednesday he was seeking government approval to extend emergency measures to communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, underlining worries that the fighting could expand beyond the Gaza border region. Currently, restrictions on gatherings, closures of public sites and other emergency measures are only in place within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the Palestinian enclave.

The IDF launched the surprise operation early Tuesday morning with the targeted assassination of three senior members of Islamic Jihad. Ten others were killed in the airstrikes, including four children.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said that 20 people have been killed since the start of the operation.

Terror groups in Gaza did not respond to the operation with rocket fire for close to 36 hours, but then they began firing a volley of missiles toward Israel shortly before noon on Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, around 270 rockets had been fired toward Israel, 65 of which fell short of the border. Another 62 were intercepted.

Eight people have been hospitalized for injuries suffered while running to bomb shelters, but no direct injuries from rockets were reported.

Residents of southern Israel, who have suffered through seemingly unending waves of intense conflict, have for years urged Israeli leaders to take decisive action to bring security to the south, with some pushing for a military solution while others advise negotiating a long-term end to the hostilities.

“I’m prepared to sit in a bomb shelter for another month, so that they can instill a sense of deterrence,” Guy, a resident of the Kerem Shalom kibbutz near Gaza, told the Walla news site. “We want peace, but we understand that there’s no chance of that happening, so at least there should be deterrence. Terror groups need to understand that all terror activity has a price. We can’t continue the way things were.”

Smoke and fire rise from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, May 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Many have lost hope that long-term quiet is possible after two decades that have seen countless rocket launches and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes to little effect.

“After past operations we felt that we didn’t accomplish anything, and things were calm only for a brief time,” Elad Harel of kibbutz Karmiya told the Kan public broadcaster. “In this operation too I don’t believe we will achieve calm or deterrence for a long period.”

IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari stressed to reporters on Wednesday that the operation was solely focused on Islamic Jihad, “which is undermining the security situation in Gaza and [the West Bank].”

“We are still in the middle of the campaign, it is not over and has not been concluded,” he added.

A senior Israel official told Hebrew-language media Wednesday afternoon that Hamas has not been involved in firing rockets at Israel so far, though it put its name to Islamic Jihad operations attributed to a joint command center.

“Hamas has no interest in getting involved,” the official said. “Hamas are not active and they won’t act, although they are issuing statements.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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