Israel is the closest its been to war in Gaza since the 2014 war with Hamas, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio Tuesday evening, following a day of intense rocket and mortar fire from the Strip and retaliatory Israeli strikes.
“We are now the nearest we’ve been to the brink of war since Operation Protective Edge,” he said. “We don’t want it and the other side doesn’t either, but we have a red line.”
Katz said he believed the coming hours could see “an escalation” in violence. “Whether it crosses the brink of a war we don’t want and they don’t want — that’s up to them and only them,” he said.
Tuesday saw at least 60 rockets and mortar shells launched into Israel from Gaza, as well as dozens of retaliatory strikes by the IDF against terror targets in the Strip, capping weeks of soaring tensions in the region stemming from weekly protests on the border. In an early morning mortar shell barrage, one shell exploded in the yard of a kindergarten shortly before children arrived.
Four Israelis — three soldiers and a civilian — were wounded by shrapnel in the attacks. One soldier was moderately wounded, while the rest suffered light injuries.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz warned that Israel could be forced to “conquer Gaza” if the violence did not abate.
“We may not have a choice, and we’ll be forced to hit Gaza and conquer it in order to end this terrorist regime once and for all,” Steinitz, a member of the high-level security cabinet, told the Ynet news site.
He stressed, however, that Israel did not want such a result. “We hope we are not forced into such action,” he said, calling for a sharp response that would prevent a much larger conflagration.
Steinitz echoed Katz in saying he did not believe Hamas wanted all-out war with Israel, but that Israel would react harshly if the terror group could not bring the projectile fire under control.
And he said it was important that Israel use not just its brawn but its brains in dealing with the Palestinian enclave.
Israel needs to “consider the humanitarian situation in Gaza…we need to think of how to implement a more comprehensive solution that will bring about a fundamental change in the situtaion in Gaza,” Steinitz said.
Netanyahu was meeting Tuesday evening with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and the head of the Shin Bet security agency Nadav Argaman to discuss the escalation in the south.
Prior to the meeting Liberman warned on Twitter: “Any place from which terror groups fire at Israel is a legitimate target for air force strikes.” He vowed to “operate in every way to ensure security and quiet for Israeli citizens.”
Netanyahu had vowed earlier to respond “with great force” to the attacks from Gaza.
President Reuven Rivlin said the violence was part of “open conflict with terrorist organizations supported by Iran…we are determined to defend our borders, our daily lives, and the lives of our people.” He added that Israel “will not accept the Iranian ring of terror tightening its grip in the north and in the south.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) called on the international community to “raise its voice” in condemnation of the projectile attacks from Gaza or risk “giving Hamas further incentive to drag us into an unwanted, unnecessary and costly conflict.”
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid backed the tough Israeli response, saying he too expected “clear condemnation from the international community to this massive attack on a civilian population.”
Meanwhile the head of the Joint (Arab) List Ayman Odeh condemned the Israeli government for the violence, saying “the far-right government is pushing the region into war.” Odeh said, “This escalation did not come from nowhere. Gaza is suffering under siege, and instead of finding real solutions Netanyahu is choosing to fan the flames under this pressure cooker.”
MK Jamal Zahalka of the Joint List claimed Israel was “initiating a military confrontation” in Gaza and called on the world to “restrain Israeli power madness.”