Israel-Gaza conflict: Israel bids to ‘dismantle Hamas terror machine’ as attack plans harden

Ground offensive gains support after cross-border rocket launches continue for a fourth day

Jerusalem

Israel expanded the goal of its operation in Gaza from halting rocket fire to “dismantling” the military capability of Hamas, as the notion of a ground incursion into the coastal enclave gained greater political support.

The change in terminology could point the way towards Israel’s first ground offensive in Gaza since the devastating Operation Cast Lead in 2009, as military and political leaders realise the limits of the current campaign of air and sea strikes and its apparent inability to halt cross-border rocket launches by Hamas.

For the moment, Israel has given no sign it is considering diplomacy as a possible means to stop the rockets. “Over the last few years Hamas built up a formidable military terrorist machine and we are now taking steps to dismantle that,” said Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Asked about an increasingly prevalent view that this is impossible without a ground operation, Mr Regev replied: “That could be correct.”

 

Mr Netanyahu himself, asked later about a ground offensive, responded: “We are weighing all the possibilities and preparing for all the possibilities. My supreme consideration is to restore quiet to the citizens of Israel and I will do what is necessary to reach this goal. Hamas continues its attacks as you see and hear. When Hamas fights us, we fight it.” Mr Netanyahu added that “no international pressure will prevent us from acting”.

A ground operation could spell disaster for Gaza residents and it would be a high risk move by Israel, exposing it to casualties among its troops, fuelling international condemnation and pressure over heavy Palestinian losses.

The US has said it opposes a ground operation though it has also repeatedly voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself against the rockets. Middle East envoy Tony Blair yesterday said the situation was at a “very critical point”.

Militant groups kept up their rocket barrages on Israel for a fourth day yesterday, sending Israelis scurrying for cover in Tel Aviv and the south. One rocket struck a fuel tanker in Ashdod, 22 miles south of Tel Aviv, wounding six people and causing a large fire.

Children read while sitting in a street shelter, in anticipation of Code Red sirens alerting of incoming rockets Children read while sitting in a street shelter, in anticipation of Code Red sirens alerting of incoming rockets (Getty Images)
Calls from the political right for a ground offensive were reinforced yesterday by Nachman Shai, a legislator from the centre-left Labour party. “A ground offensive may be needed militarily to stop the rockets and look for weapons depots and break the psychological barrier in which Hamas thinks that Israel doesn’t dare go in,” Mr Shai told The Independent. “If it will not lead to Israel’s staying in Gaza forever I wouldn’t exclude it. It should be limited in time, range and scope. Once the aerial operation exerts itself I think it should be ground and air at the same time. I think we should move quickly to a ground operation.”

Israeli spokesman Lt-Col Peter Lerner said yesterday that the airforce continued its “mission to strike Hamas operatives, military infrastructure, capabilities and tunnels”. Meanwhile, the number of civilian fatalities in Gaza continued to increase, the vast majority of whom were civilians, according to Gaza human rights groups.

Two rockets were also fired into Israel from Lebanon, security sources there told Reuters, raising the prospect that Israel’s northern front could become volatile. Israel responded with artillery fire. Three rockets from Gaza were intercepted over the Tel Aviv area by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defence system. The military wing of Hamas warned airlines against flying to Ben Gurion airport, which was “one of our targets today because it also hosts a military air base”.

But partly due to the Iron Dome system, there has not yet been a single fatality in Israel. “The difference between us is simple, we develop defensive systems against missiles to protect our civilians and they use their civilians to protect their missiles,” said Mr Netanyahu last night.

Smoke rises following an Israeli missile strike on Rafah Smoke rises following an Israeli missile strike on Rafah (Getty Images)
“And this is the entire difference: they fire indiscriminately at our civilians and our cities in order to attack them. Sometimes they hit soldiers by mistake. We strike at their armed forces and sometimes we hit civilians by mistake.”

Meanwhile, Hamas’s website yesterday ran an article claiming there were casualties in “occupied Tel Aviv” from shelling on Wednesday, that a “condition of fright” pervades the Israeli city and that “despair is spreading in the ranks of the occupation police”. In reality, however, there were no casualties and the cafés were full.

In the Ashdod fuel tanker strike, the most damaging one yet, one Israeli was seriously wounded and five people suffered less serious injuries. Eliezer Malka, an Ashdod resident, said: “I was at the car wash when the siren went off. We ran and then there was a huge blast. The earth shook. We did not think it would it would be so close.”

Israel has mobilised 20,000 reservists as it prepares for the possible ground offensive. Despite the fact that Mr Netanyahu refrained from sending in ground troops during the last Gaza war in 2012, Raviv Drucker, a leading Israeli commentator puts the odds at 60 to 40 that Mr Netanyahu would opt for a ground operation.

This, Mr Drucker explained, was because Mr Netanyahu will be impelled to do so by the need to be in sync with his right-wing constituency. “Netanyahu has to show an achievement and at the moment he doesn’t have this achievement,” he said.

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