Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday called on his fellow ministers to approve a large-scale military campaign against the Hamas terror group in Gaza in light of ongoing riots and violence along the Strip’s security fence.
“I’ve held a series of meetings with the head of the Southern Command, the head of the [Gaza] Division, the brigade commanders, the battalion commanders, also with soldiers. My impression is that they all have reached the understanding that the situation as it is today cannot continue,” Liberman said.
According to the defense minister’s assessment, a “serious blow” to Hamas would result in four to five years of calm along the Gaza border — akin to the quiet that persisted from the end of the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, until the start of the current round of clashes in late March, a few limited skirmishes notwithstanding.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have participated in a series of protests and riots dubbed the “Great March of Return,” which have mostly involved the burning of tires and rock-throwing along the security fence, but have also seen shooting attacks and bombings as well as the sending of incendiary balloons and kites into Israel.
Some 155 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the clashes with IDF troops, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members. One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a sniper on the border.
The riots began as weekly events, but in recent weeks — due to both an internal Palestinian conflict and failed indirect negotiations with Israel — the clashes have become a daily event.
The defense minister said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and convinced him that a full-scale military action was necessary in Gaza was the rioting that took place along the border last Friday evening, after Israel allowed additional fuel into the Strip that had been purchased by Qatar.
“We have exhausted all other options in Gaza,” Liberman said during a visit to the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division headquarters near the Strip.
“Now is the time to make decisions,” he added.
Liberman said “persuasions and international cooperations” have failed to bring about a negotiated armistice with the Hamas terror group, leaving only the possibility of military action.
“We need to strike a serious blow at Hamas,” he said. “That’s the only way to bring back quiet.”
The security cabinet, which approves such military campaigns, met Sunday to discuss the possibility of an attack against Hamas, but ultimately decided to wait until the week’s end in order to give negotiators a chance to convince the group to abandon its current violent tactics.
An Egyptian military intelligence delegation reportedly arrived in Gaza on Tuesday to meet with Hamas officials in an attempt to calm the situation.
On Wednesday, the cabinet is due to meet again.
“[A strike on Hamas] must be the decision of the security cabinet,” Liberman told reporters following his meetings with senior IDF officers.
The defense minister said he was taking Hamas at its word that what it sought to achieve with the riots was an end to the blockade that Israel and Egypt have imposed on Gaza since Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007 — a measure that Jerusalem and Cairo say is in place to prevent arms and hostile forces from entering the coastal enclave.
“When Hamas says that it’s going to continue rioting on the border until there’s an end to the blockade, we need to accept that as it is, without interpretations,” Liberman said.
“Getting rid of the blockade has one meaning… allowing Hezbollah members and Iranians into Gaza,” he said, referring to the powerful Lebanon-based terror group.
Asked if the government was seeking to ensure lasting quiet for southern Israelis — beyond the four or five years that Liberman said a campaign would bring — the defense minister said that for now he was “only looking at the short term.”
“But if we get four or five years of quiet, we need to take advantage of it,” he said.
Liberman acknowledged that such a campaign would come at a cost to the IDF, as Hamas’s weapons have become more powerful and more accurate.
The defense minister also briefly discussed the criticism he has faced from within the security cabinet, notably from Education Minister Naftali Bennett, over the violence in Gaza.
Bennett has accused the defense minister of failing to address the problem and holding back the military from attacking Hamas.
Liberman brushed off Bennett’s critiques, saying he had “deleted” him from his life.
“I don’t know a Minister Bennett,” Liberman told reporters with a smirk.
Asked about the disappearance and alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government, the defense minister refused to comment.
“I’ll leave that to the international community. We have enough problems here,” he said