The security cabinet concluded a seven-hour marathon meeting on the violence from and in Gaza on Tuesday afternoon with an order to the IDF to “continue its strikes” against terrorists in the Strip “as needed.”
The vagueness of the statement was seen in Israel and Gaza as an Israeli decision to return to calm after two days of violence that saw Palestinian terrorists in the Strip firing some 400 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities and towns along the border, killing at least one person and wounding dozens. IDF retaliatory strikes against terror groups have killed seven Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the Strip.
“The security cabinet discussed the events in the south. The cabinet received briefings from the IDF and defense officials on the [IDF] strikes and widespread operations against terror targets in Gaza. The cabinet instructed the IDF to continue its strikes as needed,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement after the meeting held in Tel Aviv.
Shortly after the announcement, Hamas’s political chief in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, was reported as saying that if Israel stopped its strikes against Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, the terror group would return to ceasefire talks.
MK Shelly Yachimovich, a leading Zionist Union lawmaker, welcomed the cabinet statement.
“The statement reveals that the effort to calm things down will continue, and that’s a good thing, especially in the face of the irresponsible calls to launch a ground operation,” Yachimovich said. “No one understands better than the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] how easy it is to make bombastic and meaningless declarations about containing and toppling Hamas, and how high the cost in blood of a major ground operation [in Gaza] that will leave things unchanged.”
Yachimovich was referring to footage circulated widely on Israeli social media on Tuesday showing then-opposition leader Netanyahu in 2009 criticizing the Olmert government for seeking calm in Gaza amid rocket fire.
Also Tuesday evening, Netanyahu spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron by phone, telling him Israel “was acting on its right to defend itself in the face of efforts by terror groups in Gaza to hurt Israeli civilians,” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.
The cabinet decision and apparent attempts to return calm in Gaza followed threats from both sides that they were prepared to escalate the fighting.
In a Tuesday statement, the IDF said it had already destroyed more than 150 military targets in the coastal enclave,
“There is ample room for additional targets,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesperson. “We have signaled to Hamas over the course of this night that we have the intelligence and ability to strike a variety of military targets that belong to Hamas.”
Spokespeople for the armed wing of Hamas, the terror group that rules the Strip, threatened to start shooting rockets deeper into Israeli territory if fighting continued, calling recent barrages on the city of Ashkelon a “warning.”
“Approximately one million Zionists will be within the range of our missiles if the Zionist enemy’s decision is to continue its aggression,” a Hamas spokesman said.
Another spokesman said Tuesday morning that if Israel continues its bombardments of Gaza, the cities of “Ashdod and Beersheba are next in line,” while a spokesperson for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group threatened to attack Tel Aviv.
On Tuesday, Israel also stopped cooperating with the Egyptian intelligence officials and United Nations special envoy to the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, who have been working to broker a ceasefire between the two sides, in a clear signal that Jerusalem was prepared to continue pummeling the Strip if the rocket and mortar attacks persisted.
The massive barrage of rocket and mortar shells, which began Monday afternoon and persisted throughout the night and into Tuesday morning, appeared to be the largest-ever attack in a 24-hour period from the Gaza Strip, with more than twice the number of projectiles fired than on any single day of the bloody 2014 war.
In response to the “relentless rocket fire” from Gaza, the Israeli military launched a series of ground, air and naval strikes at over 150 targets in the Strip connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including “key strategic assets,” according to Conricus.
Among those assets were the Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa television station, which Israel says was used to direct and encourage terrorist activities, and Hamas’s internal security headquarters.
As rocket attacks continued throughout the day on Monday night and Tuesday, the Israeli army sent reinforcements to the south in the form of additional infantry troops, tanks and Iron Dome batteries.
The military had yet to call up significant numbers of reservists as of Tuesday morning, but IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis told the Radio Darom station that it may yet do so if the need arises. Small numbers of reserve personnel, mostly from aerial defense units, have been brought into army service, Conricus told reporters by phone.
According to the IDF, more than 400 rockets and mortars have been lobbed at southern Israel since Monday afternoon shortly after 4:30 p.m., when Palestinian terrorists fired a Kornet anti-tank guided missile at a bus near the border, severely injuring an Israeli soldier.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.