The security cabinet on Monday evening signed off on a major military response if terrorists in the Gaza Strip continue to fire rockets into Israel, after dozens of projectiles were launched from the enclave over the past three days.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were authorized to determine what steps to take should the violence persist, according to Israeli officials.
The decision came following a security cabinet meeting in which defense officials presented a number of potential military options in response to further rocket attacks. The officials warned that a large strike on the Hamas terror group could lead to an outbreak of further violence not only in Gaza, but also in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Though the Israel Defense Forces has not yet sent reinforcements to the Gaza border, the military on Monday night was gearing up for the possibility of a wider conflict.
The latest violence began late Friday night, when terrorists in the Strip launched at least 36 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, causing light damage in a number of Israeli communities near the border. The attacks resumed on Saturday night, when more than four rockets were fired toward Israel, some of them failing to clear the border and landing inside Gaza, and then again late Sunday night, when five more projectiles were fired from the Strip at southern Israel.
The IDF responded to the Friday night attacks with strikes on Hamas infrastructure, but has refrained since then from retaliating violently. Instead, on Monday morning, the military announced it was closing the Gaza fishing zone until further notice, cutting off a major source of income for the beleaguered enclave.
The terror groups that conducted the launches — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah — said in statements that they were a response to ongoing unrest in Jerusalem, which has seen violence between Jews and Arabs, as well as clashes between Arab youths and Israeli police, in recent days. The attacks and Hamas’s presumed approval of them have also been tied to internal Palestinian competition, ahead of elections that were scheduled for next month — the first elections in some 15 years — but which the Palestinian Authority has indicated it plans to postpone indefinitely.
In addition to the rocket attacks, riots have been held along the Gaza border for the past three nights, with protesters burning tires and setting off small explosives.
Since the start of the attacks, Israel has sent a number of messages to Hamas through a variety of intermediaries — notably the Egyptian military and the United Nations — warning the terror group that if it did not rein in the other terror groups in the Strip, that the IDF would hold it responsible.
On Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland — a major international arbiter between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip — regarding the escalating violence from the Palestinian enclave, his office said.
“I expressed the urgency of the immediate cessation of violence from Gaza and reiterated Israel’s unyielding commitment to protecting its citizens and sovereignty,” Gantz said in a statement.
Wennesland was expected to travel later in the day to Cairo for talks with Egyptian Intelligence officials, who in the past have also mediated between Israel and Hamas. From there, he will head to Amman, for meetings with Jordanian officials about the situation in Jerusalem.
Israeli officials explained to Wennesland that the closure of the Gaza fishing zone was the last attempt at a non-military response to the rocket fire, but that from now on, Israel would use force to counter the attacks, according to the Walla news site. The officials asked that Hamas be told that existing understandings for calm on the border are, from Israel’s point of view, still in place, and that continued rocket fire will not be tolerated.
The Israeli officials also stressed that Israel will not allow itself to be dragged into any internal Palestinian disputes against the backdrop of the expected delay in Palestinian elections that had been scheduled for May 22, according to the report.
Earlier Monday, Hamas reacted furiously to Israel’s full closure of the Gaza fishing zone, saying it would not accept the restrictions and that the policy would have serious repercussions.
“Israel will bear the consequences,” Hamas said, according to the Ynet news site. “The closure of the Gaza Strip to fishermen is a blatant violation of their rights and constitutes a form of ongoing aggression against our people. Israel’s aggressive policy toward the Palestinian people will not break its steadfast spirit or weaken its fist or limit its determination.
“We will not accept restrictive measures and pressure on the Palestinian people, and Israel will bear the consequences of its aggressive behavior,” the terror group said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.