Amidst cease-fire calls, Yuval Steinitz says IDF prepared to ‘recapture Gaza’ if necessary

Even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intensified efforts for an immediate cease-fire, top Israeli minister and Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said Thursday that Israel’s army is prepared to dramatically expand its ground operation in the Gaza Strip and even “recapture Gaza in its entirety” if Hamas’ rocket fire and cross-border tunnel attacks cannot otherwise be stopped.

Speaking from Israel on a conference call hosted by the Israeli American Council (IAC), the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs said that Operation Protective Edge, which began on July 8, may be nearing the beginning of its “third stage,” which reports indicate would involve Israel's military targeting Hamas military assets throughout Gaza.

Since Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip on July 17, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it has discovered 31 tunnels used by Hamas to enter Israel. On July 17, 13 Hamas operatives emerged from an underground tunnel leading from Gaza to the outskirts of Israel’s Kibbutz Sufa.

Four days later, Israeli troops were surprised by the sight of 10 Hamas terrorists dressed in Israeli army uniforms emerging from below just a few hundred feet from Kibbutz Nir Am. The ensuing firefight left four Israeli soldiers and the 10 Hamas members dead.

Although international pressure for a cease-fire has increased amid the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, Steinitz indicated that Israel is not prepared to accept a situation in which Hamas is left largely intact and able to rearm itself for the next outbreak of violence.

Jonathan Schachter, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote in a July 12 email to the Journal that such a “time-out” is not Israel’s endgame. That note came when Israel’s military activity was mostly limited to air strikes.

Steinitz said during the conference call that ground forces still need several more days to destroy all the tunnels that Israeli intelligence identified, adding his disapproval of public figures and media outlets that claim support for Israel’s operation, but choose to focus instead on the civilian casualties caused by many of its air strikes and shelling.

“The duty of self-defense doesn’t disappear if the terrorists choose to attack you from civilian neighborhoods,” Steinitz said, alluding to Hamas’ strategy of operating out of homes, hospitals, schools and United Nations buildings in order to both dissuade Israeli attacks and, Steinitz said, sacrifice innocent Gazans “if it serves their purpose.”

Steinitz said that even taking into consideration the U.S. Army’s wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, the IDF is doing more than any other democratic country to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.

Prepared to “enlarge the ground operation” in a “dramatic” manner in order to destroy the rest of Hamas’ military infrastructure, Steinitz showed no indication that Israel is prepared to let up, particularly if Hamas continues to fire dozens or hundreds of rockets a day.

Steinitz’s comments were preceded by those of David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, and IAC Board Chair Shawn Evenhaim. They came just hours after multiple explosions killed at least 16 Palestinians at a UN school in Gaza. Although initial reports blamed Israel for the incident, The New York Times reported that a UN official in Gaza could not be sure whether it was Israeli or Hamas munitions that struck the building.

The nearly three-week conflict has taken the lives of about 750 Palestinians — 200 of them Hamas members — and 35 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Although Steinitz said that demilitarization of Gaza is the only solution that would guarantee lasting calm, he did not discuss how that could be accomplished or why Hamas, which aims for Israel’s destruction, would agree to disarm itself.

If Israeli political and military leaders ultimately decided that reoccupation of Gaza would be the only way to maintain quiet on its southern border, it would mark a drastic shift from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005 to unilaterally withdraw from the territory, evicting nearly 9,000 Israelis who were living in settlements.

That withdrawal set the stage for the ascendancy of Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then violently routed the Palestinian Authority — also known as Fatah — from the Gaza Strip in 2007 in its successful attempt at de facto control of the coastal enclave.

If Israel does decide to retake Gaza or destroy Hamas, one listener asked during the conference call, who will govern the territory and its nearly 2 million inhabitants?

“If we will decide, finally, to recapture Gaza and topple this terrorist machine, I assume Abu Mazen will take over,” Steinitz said, referring to the Arabic name of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.

A poll released July 23, though, by the Ramallah-based Arab World for Research & Development, indicated that nearly twice as many Palestinians in the West Bank support Hamas over Fatah.