Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday signaled to the heads of the Gaza-based Hamas terror group that Israel was prepared to go war, as the military geared up for another day of violence along the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave.
In a tweet, Liberman indicated that Israel had been holding back on a harsh response to the near-nightly riots on the border in order to prevent an all-out conflict during the period of the Jewish High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah on September 9 and ending with Simchat Torah on October 1.
“We’ve been through the High Holidays exactly as we planned, without a flare-up and by exacting a heavy price on the rioters along the Gaza border,” Liberman said, referring to the people killed and injured by IDF troops during the clashes.
“The holidays are over, and I say to the heads of Hamas: ‘Take that into account,'” the defense minister wrote.
On Friday morning, IDF snipers, tanks and ground troops prepared to take positions along the security fence ahead of violent protests and clashes expected to take place later in the afternoon.
The night before, Liberman ordered the Israel Defense Forces to go on high alert on the border.
The defense minister instructed the IDF to maintain “maximum preparedness for any scenario,” his office said.
On Thursday, the army announced it had decided to deploy additional troops to the Gaza area. The IDF also positioned a number of Iron Dome air defense batteries in the south as part of its preparations.
“It was decided to send large numbers of reinforcements in the coming days to the Southern Command and to continue the determined policy of thwarting terror attacks and preventing infiltration into Israel from the Gaza Strip security fence,” the army said in a statement.
Border riots, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have increased dramatically in recent weeks. They began as weekly events from late March through the summer, but appeared to slow as Hamas entered indirect talks with Israel aimed at a ceasefire.
As these talks have stalled, Hamas has increased the pace of rioting and demonstrations against Israel, and created new units tasked with sustaining tensions along the border fence including during nighttime and early morning hours.
The nightly riots, in which Palestinians regularly throw grenades and improvised explosives at IDF troops, as well as ongoing airborne arson attacks using balloons carrying incendiary devices, have threatened to spark a new large-scale clash in Gaza.
“The IDF is prepared and ready for a variety of scenarios and sees the Hamas terror group as responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip and that emanates from it,” the army said.
Israeli military officials have warned repeatedly that the situation in Gaza is more likely to escalate than to calm down. However, recently the army noted that Hamas appears to actively be readying itself for a limited conflict with Israel.
Meanwhile the Eshkol regional council said in a letter to residents: “Every day and night we are exposed to explosions and incendiary balloons that continue to be launched into our area and to the thick, acrid smoke from the tire fires next to the border.”
The letter continues: “In our conversations with political and military figures, we ask them to put an end to the riots and the incidents near our communities, and we support the IDF in all actions needed to do so.”
In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily published Thursday, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said that while he didn’t want any more wars, an “eruption is inevitable” given the current humanitarian conditions in the Strip — conditions that Israel and others in the world blame explicitly on Hamas’s poor governance of the coastal enclave.
Both Israel and Egypt enforce a number of restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from arming or building military infrastructure.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened steadily, and Hamas’s reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority have broken down.
British publication The Telegraph reported Wednesday that in a recent five-hour briefing to Palestinian reporters, Sinwar laid down a new strategy stating that if Israel lifts the Gaza blockade, Hamas and the other Palestinian factions would ensure all rocket launches and other attacks against Israel are stopped.
The Hamas leader reportedly said he is confident that an agreement with Israel can be reached by mid-October, but threatened to cause “chaos” with mass border demonstrations if there is no deal.
A senior Hamas official on Sunday accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of fomenting violence in the region and pushing Israel toward a new war in the Gaza Strip.
“Abbas wants to control everything in Gaza; war is good for him,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior leader in the Gaza Strip, told Arab media. Al-Zahar was in Cairo as part of a large delegation from Gaza taking part in talks to reach a Palestinian reconciliation deal and a possible long-term truce with Israel.
The protests along the border, which Israel maintains are being directed by Hamas, have included regular rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as shooting and IED attacks aimed at IDF soldiers, and attempts to breach the border fence.
Gaza protesters have also launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed livestock. Thousands of acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials. Some balloons have carried improvised explosive devices.
Dozens of Palestinians were injured by Israeli fire in the past week in the wake of heavy clashes on Friday in which seven Gazans, including two teenagers, were killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The army released footage of the violent demonstrations, which it said were the worst in two months, depicting attempts to breach and sabotage the security fence. The IDF said more than 100 improvised bombs and grenades were hurled at troops during the day’s clashes that it said drew some 20,000 Palestinians.
At least 140 Palestinians were killed during the protests since late March, according to AP figures. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.