Amid Pressure, Israel Stands Firm on Options
As deaths from airstrikes on the Gaza Strip passed 100 and rockets continued to rain into Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said international pressure wouldn’t influence his assault against Hamas and all options were possible, including a ground invasion.
Sirens on Friday wailed through Israel’s major cities warning of incoming rockets, and the country’s military said it exchanged fire with Lebanon in an area believed to be controlled by the militant group Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Hamas militants, who have been launching hundreds of missiles into Israel from the Gaza Strip, vowed to press on with their fight and said they will attack the Tel Aviv airport, telling airlines not to land their planes there.
Officials in Washington said that with little momentum behind a swift diplomatic deal to end the attacks, chances of an Israeli ground operation appeared to be growing. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said one senior U.S. military official.
Asked in a news conference on Friday if Israel planned to invade, Mr. Netanyahu told reporters: “We’re preparing for all options.”
Mr. Netanyahu said he had spoken recently with his counterparts from the U.S., Germany, France and Russia, among others, to explain Israel’s operation against Hamas.
But he added: “No international pressure will prevent us from operating with full force against a terrorist organization that calls for our destruction.”
Israel on Friday mobilized some 30,000 reservists who could move into Gaza at a moment’s notice, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Libby Weiss said.
On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, to express “concern about the risk of further escalation” and urge “all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm,” according to the Pentagon.
Mr. Ya’alon told Mr. Hagel that Israel wants to avoid a ground operation in Gaza if possible, said one senior U.S. official familiar with the call, but that history suggests a deeper conflict may be inevitable.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., said pressure may soon be mounting on Israel to take greater action. “The question now is: How long can Israel deal with 70 rockets coming in a day?”
By Friday afternoon the Palestinian death toll stood at 105, with roughly 785 injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The majority were women, children and the elderly, the ministry said.
In Israel, a man had his hand blown off after a rocket hit a gas station near the southern city of Ashdod, officials said. So far, there have been no Israeli deaths.
Meanwhile, the IDF said a rocket fired from Lebanon landed near the northern town of Metula on Friday morning and Israel returned fire. It wasn’t clear who shot the rocket, the IDF said, but Israel’s north has been on edge amid fears that militant groups in Lebanon might join those in Gaza attacking Israel.
The airstrikes by Israel included a house in the border city of Rafah, where five people were killed, and 15 injured, according to the Palestinian media. The reports couldn’t be independently confirmed.
One witness described an airstrike on a residential building in Gaza City that destroyed the apartment of a doctor, killing him.
“I was shocked how it was hit,” Waleed Qattaa, a water pump technician who lives in a building nearby. He says he saw two helicopters approach the building and fire on it after he broke fast for Ramadan.
Hamas’s armed wing said on its website it was beginning attacks on Ben Gurion Airport. It said it had already hit the airport, but there was no immediate evidence of that, and Israel denied it.
Mr. Oren, the former Israeli ambassador, said while drawing Israel into Gaza would be a costly undertaking, events could overtake efforts to avoid a dangerous ground war. “There are a number of clocks ticking that will determine what happens next,” he said.
The first, said Mr. Oren, was Israel’s own tolerance of the rocket assault by Gaza—which has reached more than 100 projectiles on most days. The second clock, he said, was Gaza’s tolerance for Israel’s reprisal attacks, particularly were Israel to inflict massive casualties in a residential area that would bring a larger retaliation from Hamas.
The third ticking clock, Mr. Oren said, was the time before a possible condemnation of Israel by the international community. While that hasn’t come yet, “it could create a check” to a ground war, Mr. Oren said.
Israel has been reluctant to take over the Gaza Strip in the past. During fighting in 2008 and 2009, Israel waged an aerial war with Hamas but only ordered a limited ground invasion, which was later withdrawn. In 2012, there was no ground invasion at all and a cease fire was quickly brokered.
Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council, said the current conflict differs from past ones.
In 2009, Israel couldn’t destroy incoming rockets using its Iron Dome air defense system like it does today, putting more pressure to fight; in 2012 then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was able to broker a quick cease fire. Mr. Morsi has since been deposed and Egypt considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
“The question must be what Israel wants to achieve: Does it want to gain a little more calm or does it want more?” he said. “If the goal is to find a permanent solution then a limited ground operation isn’t enough.”
Many Israelis remain haunted by wars that balloon into long-term conflicts.
The 1982 Lebanon War began as a limited operation, expanded into a war and invasion that included Beirut, then stretched into nearly two decades of occupation that lasted until 2000 and resulted in the emergence of Hezbollah.
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser of Mr. Netanyahu, said a decision to send in troops could be unpopular.
“The price of conquering Gaza, is a price many Israelis, perhaps even a majority, isn’t willing to take,” Mr. Amidror said.
But he said a successful Hamas attack on civilians could tilt the country to change its mind quickly, a choice he said Mr. Netanyahu could be willing to make.
“We might come to that,” Mr. Amidror said. “[Mr. Netanyahu] will only make that decision if he feels it is the last resort, but if it is the last resort, then he will make the decision.”
Mr. Amidror warned that an operation to uproot Hamas house-by-house in Gaza wouldn’t be quick. He estimates it took two years for Israel to end Hamas’ influence in the West Bank after a reinvasion of the territory in the early 2000s. The Palestinian Authority also has limited influence in Gaza, meaning its 1.7 million people could become Israel’s responsibility.
Mr. Oren, who wrote a book about Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, agreed. “There are no more Six Day War moments anymore,” he said.