By AVRAHAM GOLD,TOVAH LAZAROFF
A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire burning scrubland in an area where Palestinians have been causing blazes by flying kites and balloons loaded with flammable materials, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near kibbutz Nir Am, June 5, 2018. (photo credit:“ AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Despite a late-summer lull in the number of incendiary devices launched, the amount sent into Israeli territory has steadily increased again in October.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman pushed for a military solution to the Gaza conflict on Tuesday, as a study shows that Palestinian-launched incendiary devices have burned half of the forested land near the southern border.
“Now is the time for decisions. My position is very clear: We must deal a heavy blow against Hamas. This is the only way to return the situation to its previous state, and to reduce the level of violence to nearly zero,” Liberman said.
He spoke during a visit to the Gaza periphery to meet with top military brass and in advance of a security cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
The defense minister has been among the most hawkish voices on the issue of the continued low-level Gaza violence that began on March 30. It has included Palestinian riots along the Gaza border, infiltrations into Israel and the launching of incendiary devices that have burned thousands of hectares on the Israeli side of the border.
The security cabinet, however, has not decided to launch a military operation.
Egypt this week is making another attempt to broker a cease-fire understanding between Israel and Hamas.
Liberman acknowledged that a Gaza military operation must come after “a decision of the entire cabinet. Everyone understands that the situation today cannot continue. We cannot accept violence week after week,” he said.
“The Defense Ministry has done everything possible to attempt to restore the situation in Gaza to what it was prior to March 30,” he said. “We have exhausted our options,” Liberman added.
He explained that he became convinced of the necessity of a military strike after Hamas responded with violence to Israel’s humanitarian gesture last week. To alleviate Gaza’s electricity crisis, Israel facilitated the transfer into the Strip of a large shipment of Qatari-funded fuel for Gaza’s only power plant.
“The change came last Friday. We allowed tanks of diesel to enter Gaza. In return, we faced the kind of violence that we have not seen in a long time,” Liberman said, adding that: “We also saw [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh saying: ‘Diesel and salaries are not going to stop the violence until the blockade is lifted.’”
Liberman said he accepts Hamas at face value when it states that the violence will end when the Gaza borders are completely open.
The absence of any inspection mechanism at the Gaza border would allow Iran to strengthen its influence on the Strip, and facilitate a heavy influx of arms.
“This means Iranian weapons and Hezbollah fighters in Gaza,” he said.
Hamas’s cease-fire terms are unacceptable: it wants full benefits but does not want to demilitarize or to abandon its goal of destroying Israel, Liberman said.
“The only formula in my opinion is rebuilding in exchange for disarmament. At the moment, we need to make decisions, and I hope the cabinet will make decisions. The only way is a heavy blow that can, in my opinion, lead to five years of quiet,” Liberman said.
On Tuesday, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) published data that 1,100 fires have been set since April 10, the day KKL-JNF workers first reported Palestinian-launched arson devices.
The fires have burned nearly 1,200 hectares of land near the Gaza Strip, more than half of the 2,100 hectares of forested land in the region.
Early on Tuesday, an IAF aircraft struck a launching post for incendiary balloons that had been sent into Israel, one of five reported by local authorities for the day.
“This week we mark exactly half a year of the phenomenon of kite terrorism, which caused more than 1,000 fires that consumed 12,000 dunams of the forests of the western Negev,” Daniel Gigi, director of the KKL-JNF Southern Region, said in a statement.
“Although the fire continues today, thanks to joint work with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, the residents of the communities, the volunteers and the IDF, we manage to take control of the fires quickly,” the statement continued. “In the past six months, all of the regional authorities have united, and together we have built a working model to fight the fires when they are still small.”
Since April, Palestinians have routinely sent incendiary devices – kites and balloons with Molotov cocktails or burning cloth attached – across the border fence, with the aim of setting Israeli territory ablaze. In recent weeks, a number have been found in Jerusalem as well, which have been dealt with by Israeli police.
Despite a late-summer lull in the number of such devices, the amount sent into Israeli territory has steadily increased again in October.
The left-wing organization B’Tselem on Tuesday said that since March 30, the IDF has killed at least 166 Palestinians along Israel’s southern border – 31 of them minors – and injured more than 5,300 with live gunfire.