Gaza Invasion Is Likely, Israeli Official Says

New York Times – by Judi Rudoren

TEL AVIV — A senior Israeli military official said Wednesday the likelihood of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was “very high,” and that “if you want to efficiently fight terrorism you must be present, boots on the ground.”

The official, who has been briefing Israeli ministers who make strategic decisions, said his assessment was based on “the signals I get” and the diminishing returns of aerial bombardment after nine days. He said an Israeli takeover of Gaza is “not a huge challenge,” estimating it would take “a matter of days or weeks,” but that preventing a more dangerous devolution in the coastal enclave would require an occupation “of many months.”  

“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” the official told a handful of international journalists in a briefing at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “We can hurt them very hard from the air but not get rid of them.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity under military protocol.

Palestinians on Wednesday sat near the house of Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, after it was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

The stark assessment came as Israel bombed 60 targets, most of them in northern Gaza, after warning 100,000 residents to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. via leaflets, text messages, and automated telephone calls. The Palestinian death toll reached at least 205 by late afternoon, including four children killed in a strike on the seashore.

The lone Israeli casualty, a 37-year-old man killed by a mortar round as he distributed food to soldiers Tuesday night near the Erez crossing, was eulogized by Israel’s president-elect, Reuven Rivlin, at an afternoon funeral.

Scores of rockets from Gaza continued to fly into Israel, several of them intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system over Tel Aviv and the southern city of Ashkelon. Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, on Wednesday officially rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel had initially approved Tuesday morning. Israeli news outlets reported that Hamas had made its own proposal, offering 10 years of quiet in exchange for the full reopening of Gaza border crossings and the release of 50 Palestinians who were recently rearrested after been released in a 2011 exchange for a captured Israeli soldier.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss cease-fire terms.

But in Israel, Tuesday’s cautious embrace of a truce had been replaced by increasing chatter about the possibility of an imminent ground operation, as the government moved to call up 8,000 additional reservists, adding to the 42,000 already mobilized.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Wednesday that an invasion of Gaza was “definitely an option.”

“It’s being discussed — I can’t go beyond that,” he said. Asked about the military official’s characterization of the likelihood as “very high,” Mr. Regev said, “That’s a professional opinion of the military.” Then he added, “But you can be assured that opinion was expressed by the military to the political wing.”

Mr. Netanyahu has been under pressure from some members of his cabinet and party to start a ground operation. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been at turns partner and rival to the prime minister, reiterated his call for a more substantial operation against Hamas on Wednesday, as did Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic affairs, who has been a Netanyahu stalwart and frequent mouthpiece.


The Toll in Gaza and Israel, Day by Day

The daily tally of rocket attacks, airstrikes and deaths in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.




“To the best of my understanding, it is not possible to ensure summer vacation, a normal summer for our kids, without a ground operation in Gaza,” Mr. Lieberman said during a visit to Ashkelon, where he and his entourage had to run for cover at one point as sirens warned of incoming rockets, which were intercepted and destroyed by the Iron Dome system in dramatic fashion.

“We don’t need to rule Gaza, or build settlements in Gaza,” he added. “We need to ensure that all Hamas terrorists run away, are imprisoned, or die.”

Mr. Steinitz, for his part, said in a radio interview that it was possible Israel would begin a ground campaign in the next few days if rocket fire continued, and urged a takeover of Gaza for a few weeks to demilitarize it, topple Hamas and pave the way to “something else.”

But the senior military official said it would not be so simple.

“We estimate that sitting there and eliminating Hamas terrorism from the Gaza Strip is a matter of many months — it’s not a matter of two or three months, it’s much more than that,” he said. “We have a very good idea of what does it mean to take over Gaza Strip in all aspects — military, civilian, infrastructure, economical — we have a very good idea and I think it’s one of the issues that the Israeli government should consider very seriously.

“That’s a huge burden on anybody who would do it,” he added. “Everything has its own prices.”

The official said the military has a variety of operational plans, including a full re-occupation of Gaza, which Israel seized in the 1967 war and withdrew settlers and soldiers from in 2005, but also “taking specific parts of the strip, taking places with tunnels, places with rockets.”

The current campaign began July 7 amid mounting tension since the June 12 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking home from their yeshivas in the occupied West Bank — a crime Israel blamed on Hamas — and the July 2 kidnap and killing of a Palestinian 16-year-old in Jerusalem, which the authorities say was a revenge attack by Jewish extremists. It is Israel’s third major military operation in Gaza in six years.

An Israeli artillery unit deployed next to the border with Gaza on Wednesday.CreditAtef Safadi/European Pressphoto Agency

By Wednesday, Israel had struck more than 1,800 sites in Gaza, topping the 1,500 targets of its eight-day campaign in November 2012. Among the early-morning targets were a new five-story headquarters of the Interior Ministry that witnesses said was reduced to rubble, and the homes of several Hamas leaders: Mahmoud al-Zahar, a frequent international spokesman; Fathi Hamad, the former interior minister; Ismail al-Ashqar, a member of the defunct Parliament; and Bassem Naim, an adviser to the former prime minister, Ismail Haniya.

The Israeli leaflets dropped in northern Gaza and some neighborhoods of Gaza City warned, “Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families.”

It was unclear how many Gaza residents were heeding the call; Hamas has urged people to stay put, calling the warnings “psychological warfare.”

In the densely populated and poor neighborhoods of Zeitoun and Shejaya in Gaza City, streets were emptier than usual, but a few children flew kites and some men sat in the shade. Many people appeared confused, with some seeking shelter in friends’ homes deeper inside the neighborhoods rather than leaving.

“We don’t know where we’re going, we’re going aimlessly,” said Mohammed Dalul, who was driving a donkey cart with his six children and an elderly neighbor. They had with them only a canister of cooking gas and a single bag of clothes for the children. “Nobody is looking after us,” said the neighbor, Naziha Rukhneh.

Around noon, eight rockets were launched simultaneously from nearby; a few minutes later, the sound of a warplane was followed by that of a bomb dropping.

The senior Israeli military official said the campaign had entered “a higher level of operation” but not yet diverted from its original stated goals — to restore quiet, not to rout Hamas or conquer Gaza.

“The point will be the exact time when the Israeli government will decide we are going to change method,” he said. “When they feel the current method or the current concept is no longer working for them, I believe they will order the military to do something else.”

The official noted: “A ground campaign will be much messier.”


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