Israel on Tuesday ratcheted up threats of a massive ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, amid an ongoing war of words with the ruling Hamas movement, which has vowed to teach the army a harsh lesson.
“Gaza should not become a second Lebanon,” said Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Boim, reiterating a phrase used by Israeli leaders recently to mean the territory should not become a bastion of militant resistance.
“Apparently we will not have any other choice but to launch an expanded operation, like Defensive Shield, in order to destroy the stockpiles of weapons and to hit the terrorist organisations,” said Boim, a close ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War, was launched by Israel in 2002. It left more than 200 Palestinians and 29 Israeli soldiers dead and about 5 000 Palestinian detained.
“We have to completely stop the rocket fire and not to allow the terrorists to smuggle modern arms that would upset the balance of power between the forces,” Boim told public radio.
Israel has already been pounding Gaza for nearly four months after militants, including those from the armed wing of the Islamist party Hamas, seized a soldier and killed two others in a cross-border raid in late June.
More than 250 Palestinians, as well as two Israeli soldiers, have been killed in the territory since June 28. Nevertheless, militants have continued to fire rockets into the Jewish state and, according to Israel, have accumulated vast stockpiles of arms via tunnels dug to Egyptian territory.
The Israeli military overnight fired a missile in the northern Gaza Strip which, according to witnesses, destroyed an electricity generator that served a large part of the town of Beit Hanun, depriving it of power.
The military said the raid was aimed at militants as they prepared to fire rockets at Israel.
In the occupied West Bank, an 18-year-old militant from the radical Islamic Jihad group and another teenager were killed near the northern city of Jenin.
On Monday, the armed wing of Hamas declared it had the “means and arms necessary to confront the Zionist enemy with all our force if it proceeds [further] with military operations in the Gaza Strip”.
“If the enemy decides to go towards a large confrontation with Hamas, we will be up to this challenge and are totally ready to resist. We have finished preparations to teach the Zionist enemy a lesson it will not forget,” the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said.
The group rejected Israel’s claims that vast stores of smuggled arms have been amassed, accusing the Jewish state of “using such allegations to justify criminal operations it seems to have decided to wage in the Gaza Strip”.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas-led government, promised again on Tuesday not to bow to foreign pressure.
Haniya and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have failed to agree on the formation of a unity government, with Hamas refusing international conditions to recognise Israel and past peace agreements, and to renounce violence.
As a result, the West froze direct aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas took office in March, flinging the territories into economic meltdown and exacerbating plumetting living standards, particularly in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s Summer Rain offensive has wreaked havoc in the impoverished territory, where 1,4-million people live on rationed electricity since Israel bombed Gaza’s sole power plant in late June. — AFP