Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said that although he would prefer for the border with Gaza to remain calm, Israel was preparing for a possible wide-ranging military offensive that would be “surprising.”
“I prefer that there be calm — not that we are under the illusion that we can reach a political agreement with [Hamas], who wants to wipe the State of Israel off the face of the earth. But we are preparing for a campaign that is not only broad, but also surprising,” Netanyahu said in a meeting at city hall in the coastal city of Ashkelon, which has seen heavy bombardment by rockets from the coastal enclave over the past few years.
The prime minister’s comments came hours after Israeli troops shot and killed an armed Hamas field commander as he approached the northern Gaza border, according to Palestinian media.
After the incident, the IDF admitted the shooting was an error, saying troops mistook the Hamas commander for a border infiltrator, when in fact he was attempting to stop two other Gazans from reaching the border.
The incident sparked new tensions, with Hamas officials calling to respond forcefully to the shooting.
“I am not going to hesitate to do what is necessary,” Netanyahu said in an apparent warning. “Election considerations do not guide me, but I want this city and the communities in the south to continue to develop and flourish, and for there to be a feeling and a reality of security.”
Netanyahu has frequently been attacked on the campaign trail over his Gaza policy, but has defended his actions saying it is in Israel’s interest to do everything possible to avoid a major military operation in the Strip.
Hamas leaders had already threatened in recent days to bring back the high level of violence along the border — regular riots, arson attacks and clashes — if Israel does not continue to abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement.
Late last month, Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group reached a new ceasefire agreement, which was aimed at halting the launch of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Strip into southern Israel and reining in the general level of violence along the border, in exchange for a number of economic concessions.
Since the truce went into effect, there has been a marked drop in the number of airborne arson attacks, though they have not stopped completely.
The government of Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, has faced considerable criticism from southern residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle for what they say is a failure to adequately respond to ongoing violence by Hamas and other terror groups from the Gaza Strip, either militarily or via a long-term truce.
Since violence along the border began picking up last March, residents of the Gaza periphery have also held a number of protests throughout the country in response to what they see as government inaction in the face of terrorism.
Earlier this week, the prime minister defended his record, dismissing the complaints by political rivals as insincere, partisan attacks.
“I’m not impressed by the propaganda of the ‘experts.’ Many of them give us advice they themselves did not implement when they were on duty,” Netanyahu said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, Likud’s chief rival, was IDf chief of staff; Avigdor Liberman, who chairs the Yirael Beytenu party, was defense minister.
“And make no mistake, they will also be the first to criticize us after we embark on a large-scale military operation, which we may be forced to do. So what guides me is only one thing — the security of the State of Israel,” the prime minister said.
In a separate incident, the Hamas-affiliated Shehab news outlet reported that Israeli soldiers also fired shots at an observation post east of the southern Gazan city of Rafah on Thursday morning. There were no injuries reported in that incident. It was not immediately clear what preceded the reported gunfire by IDF troops in either case.
On Tuesday, the Gaza-based terror group launched a highly unusual training exercise that simulated the capture of IDF special forces operating in the territory.
The military on Monday uncovered a cross-border attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, five years after the start of a 2014 operation aimed at finding and destroying such passages. The tunnel was found during the construction of an underground barrier around the coastal enclave, the Israel Defense Forces said.
Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.