UN envoy calls on Israel, Hamas to ‘step back from the brink’ in Gaza

Liberman tells Mladenov Israel will react ‘harshly’; plea to avoid war comes as Israel launches major strikes on Hamas targets after soldier killed; US backs Israeli self-defense

Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, at Yad Vashem in August 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, at Yad Vashem in August 28, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The United Nations envoy for Middle East peace on Friday implored Israel and Hamas to “step back from the brink” of war as the Israel Air Force bombarded Gaza late Friday following sniper fire by Palestinians at Israeli troops earlier in the day. The IDF later said a soldier was killed by the Palestinian gunfire.

“Everyone in Gaza needs to step back from the brink,” Nickolay Mladenov wrote on Twitter. “Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right NOW!”

Mladenov added: “Those who want to provoke Palestinians and Israelis into another war must not succeed.”

The UN envoy also spoke with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman amid the escalating violence.

“We will respond harshly and all responsibility now and in the future is with the leadership of Hamas,” Liberman said after the call.

“If Hamas continues to launch rockets, the outcome will be much tougher than what they think,” added the defense minister. “The responsibility for all the destruction and [loss of] human life will be on Hamas.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the international community to intervene.

“The Palestinian presidency warned against the ongoing escalation on the Gaza Strip’s borders and called on the international community to immediately intervene to prevent a deterioration of the situation,” a statement from his office said, adding that Abbas was in touch with international and regional leaders.

Also Friday, a senior White House official told Channel 10 TV that the US supports Israel’s right to self defense.

“The Hamas aggression only causes suffering to the people of Gaza. The organization needs to put an end to this destructive round (of violence,) the TV quoted the official as saying.

Mladenov’s plea came as the Israeli military launched a wave of strikes in the Gaza Strip against Hamas targets. The Israel Defense Forces said the strikes were a response to sniper fire at Israeli troops during a riot on the border earlier in the day.

IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis described the border incident as “the most serious since [Operation] Protective Edge,” referring to the 2014 Gaza war. Hours later, the IDF revealed that a soldier had been killed; it delayed releasing the news until his family had been informed.

Following the strikes, rocket warning sirens wailed in the Gaza-area Sdot Hanegev and Sha’ar Hanegev regional councils. The IDF said three rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, two of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The large-scale evening wave of air raids was the second round of Israeli strikes Friday. In the first, Israel hit eight sites, killing four Hamas military wing members. The later raid targeted Hamas positions in the north, south and center of the Gaza Strip, including bases, bunkers, weapons stores and tunnels, the military said.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows explosions from Israeli bombardment in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The fresh air raids came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the IDF headwaters in Tel Aviv to join Liberman and the top IDF generals for a security assessment.

Manelis did not rule out a major ground offensive, but said the IDF was not looking to enter a full-scale conflict.

Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Hadashot news that Israel was preparing for a massive response on Gaza.

“Last week the air force carried out strikes that were described as the largest since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, we will look back at it after our response now and say it was a joke,” Hanegbi said. “The gloves are coming off.”

“The situation is that Hamas has repeatedly ignored our warnings, both private and public,” Hanegbi said.

Israelis living close to the Gaza border were told to stay close to bomb shelters, and not to attend synagogues for Friday evening prayers in larger numbers than could be accommodated in protected rooms if Gaza terror groups were to launch rocket attacks.

Manelis said that Hamas had spent the past three and a half months carrying out acts of terrorism during mass demonstrations at the border, firing rockets and mortar shells into Israel, and launching arson kites and balloons. Israel had tried to convey to the terror chiefs that it “means business” in demanding that the terrorism stop, but Hamas evidently had not got the message, he told Hadashot TV news.

Manelis noted that the IDF carried out a major drill this week, including simulating a ground incursion to retake control of Gaza, from where Israel withdrew in 2005. Asked whether that was a likely scenario, Manelis said it would be more sensible to wait for the completion of the current military action “over the next few hours.”

He also said that Israel had deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the south and center of the country, and said the IDF was prepared “for all scenarios.”

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