Middle East

Netanyahu escalates the pressure on Hamas

An Israeli army U.S. made self-propelled howitzer 155m cannon fires a shell from the Israel-Gaza border into the Gaza Strip July 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Friday of bolstering his ground assault on Gaza in what commentators said was part of a strategy to pressure Hamas into a truce.

"My instructions and those of the defense minister to the military, in accordance with Security Cabinet's approval, are to prepare for the possibility of a significant broadening of the ground activity," he told ministers at a special Cabinet session at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Immediately afterward, he convened his security cabinet to discuss the next steps in the military campaign, media reports said.

Netanyahu's fractious ruling coalition was more muted than usual after the launch of the ground campaign Thursday night and the announcement of the army's first combat death Friday.

"I support Netanyahu over the ground operation," Likud MP Danny Danon, usually a vocal critic, told Israeli Ynet news website, three days after Netanyahu fired him from his post of deputy defense minister over his public statements.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has stated publicly that he believes Israel must re-occupy the entire Gaza Strip, from which it pulled out all troops and settlers in 2005.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, of Lieberman's right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, was also more restrained as he spoke to reporters on his way into the cabinet meeting.

So far, there had been no talk about re-occupying Gaza, he said.

"The question is the boundaries of the operation, the force of the operation," he said.

"We have so far not taken a decision on occupying Gaza," he added.

"It may be that we reach such a situation."

But commentators said Israel would not seek to overthrow Hamas for fear of what would replace it.

"Up until not long ago, Israel's goal was to topple the Hamas government," wrote Ben Caspit in Maariv last week.

But the appearance of extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS, the Nusra Front and other Al-Qaeda-linked militants had made clear to Israel that Hamas was "almost the ideal partner."

"There is no reason to topple it, because we will miss it afterward," he wrote.

"We have to try and reach a situation in which it is truly deterred and that its arsenal of threats to the Israeli home front is depleted."

Commentators said that the characteristically-cautious premier was likely to move warily on the military front, aware of the twin threats of a rising Israeli body count on his own ratings, and the potential damage to his diplomacy by spiraling civilian casualties in Gaza.

"Netanyahu knows the political arithmetic: Wars are poison, not only for generals," veteran analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.

But Netanyahu was quick to acknowledge the hurdles, telling ministers: "There is no guarantee of 100 percent success."

Netanyahu said he had only ordered the troops in after attempts to reach a cease-fire had failed.

"We chose to launch this operation after exhausting the last options," he said.

Israel Hayom, a free sheet considered close to Netanyahu, said the prime minister had not yet given up on the hope of reaching an eventual cease-fire.

"Israel is hoping that the ground incursion into Gaza will spur Hamas into reaching a cease-fire," it said.

"The government and the military have domestic support, but they know that this depends on the three conditions that are hard to keep to in the uncertainty of battle: that it be brief, that it have a lot of accomplishments and that it have few casualties."





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