Top IDF general says last month’s Gaza battle was only ‘first stage’ of campaign

Head of Southern Command acknowledges difficulties in dealing with rocket attacks after thousands were fired at Israeli home front, says this is army’s top priority

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

In this May 19, 2021, photo, an Israeli artillery unit fires shells toward targets in Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
In this May 19, 2021, photo, an Israeli artillery unit fires shells toward targets in Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command on Thursday indicated he anticipated fighting would again break out in the Gaza Strip, saying that the conflict last month was only the “first stage” of a wider campaign.

“The operation ended, or at least its first stage did. The next stage will happen if we see that the security situation has changed,” Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano said, speaking during an on-stage interview at a conference held by Israel’s Channel 13.

Last month, Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day battle, beginning when the terror group fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem. During the fighting, the IDF launched some 1,500 strikes on Hamas targets in the Strip, and the terror group fired over 4,300 rockets and mortar shells at Israel.

Toledano said the IDF tried to “make the most” of the conflict, striking as many targets as possible so that when the fighting ended, the IDF would be on better footing tactically against Hamas.

“We don’t have operations like this every week or every month because we understand the burden that this puts on civilians, especially on the home front. And therefore when we launched this operation, we had to make the most of it,” he said.

Msj.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano (IDF spokesman)

However, the Southern Command chief said the military was ready for another round of fighting if need be.

“We are totally prepared to continue from the 11th day, with the 12th day, with the 13th day. It’s all contingent upon the security situation,” he said.

“If we succeeded with this first stage, that’s great. If we didn’t, we’ll have to continue,” Toledano said.

Asked if this round of fighting made it more likely that Israel would secure the release of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers being held by Hamas in Gaza, Toledano said the conflict “improved the possibility,” but would not comment further.

Following the campaign, the Hamas terror group boasted of its own victories during the conflict and threatened further attacks against Israel, also holding a parade showcasing the weapons used in the fighting.

Though top Israeli officials hailed the campaign as a resounding success for the IDF, Toledano was far warier of such boasts.

“I try to not speak in ‘exclamation points’ at this time, two weeks after the ceasefire. On the one hand, I want to report what we did. On the other hand, I don’t want to be caught making hasty comments,” he said.

Members of the Hamas terror group’s military wing stand on an Israeli flag in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 27, 2021, as Hamas claims victory following an 11-day conflict with Israel.(SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“But I will say this, they came prepared for Operation Protective Edge 2,” he said, referring to the IDF’s name for the 2014 Gaza war. “We came prepared for a new kind of operation, killing top commanders 20, 30, 40 meters underground.”

Toledano, whose Southern Command played a key role in the fighting, acknowledged that while the military had a number of achievements in the operation — notably in preventing Hamas’s non-rocket-based attacks — it failed to prevent Hamas from launching rockets at Israeli civilians, which effectively shut down large portions of the country for days on end.

“These wars are complicated in terms of the rockets,” Toledano said.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjartoon visit a home in the central city of Petah Tikva that was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza during the Israeli military’s “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” June 1, 2021. (Courtesy)

The Southern Command head said IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi had made the issue of surface-to-surface missile attacks a key priority for the military.

Twelve civilians were killed in Israel during the fighting, two of them from injuries sustained while running to a bomb shelter and the rest from direct rocket strikes, as well as one soldier who was killed in an anti-tank guided missile attack early in the fighting. Hundreds more were injured.

During the fighting, 253 Palestinians were killed, including 67 minors. The IDF maintains that most of the people killed were members of terror groups, including at least one of the minors, a 17-year-old. It also said some of the civilians killed were hit not by Israeli strikes but by errant rockets from Gaza that failed to clear the border and landed within the Strip.

Since a ceasefire was declaring on May 21, the Egyptian military has led an effort to negotiate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including a prisoner exchange.

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