Israel is kicking off a public relations campaign with the intention of widening a basis for international support of a military offensive on the Gaza Strip.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has instructed Israeli representatives abroad to begin diplomatic efforts focused on members of the United Nations Security Council and Europeans states.
The foreign minister told Israeli delegates to the UN to file an official complaint with Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the Security Council stating that Israel would not remain apathetic to the continued firing of rockets from Gaza, adding that it will do everything necessary to protect its citizens.
The statement was relayed Sunday night, a move that is considered highly irregular as it is the UN officials’ day of rest. Livni, however, instructed delegates not to wait until Monday.
Livni is also planning a series of telephone conferences with her counterparts across the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ban, and the foreign ministers of Russia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Simultaneously, Israeli envoys across the world have been instructed to stress Israel’s opposition to the rocket fire and to emphasize that it was Hamas who stood in violation of the six-month cease-fire that ended on Friday.
Earlier Sunday, Livni vowed to end Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip if she was elected prime minister in a February election.
“The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Livni told members of her centrist Kadima party. “The means for doing this should be military, economic and diplomatic.”
Also Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he ordered the IDF and the defense establishment to begin preparing for an offensive in Gaza, in light of the escalating rocket fire.
“Questions of place, time and method in which we will act will be approved at the professional levels,” he said. It was not a matter of “who likes Hamas and who does not,” he added. “We all want to see Hamas struck down.”
Meanwhile, Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s government in Gaza, brushed aside Israeli threats: “Nothing can finish off our people.”
Hamas official: Israel ‘playing with fire’ over Gaza
A leading Hamas official said on Sunday that the militant group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, was undeterred by Israel’s threats of a major military incursion into the coastal territory.
“For three years we’ve been hearing about big military operations and nothing has happened,” official Mahmoud Zahar told the Nazareth-based Radio A-Shams.
“Israel is playing with fire like a child going out to smoke his first cigarette, coughing and choking, and then quitting on his own,” he added.
Zahar also said that Israel was “lying” in claiming that its economic blockade on Gaza was in response to continuing rocket and mortar shell fire.
“The blockade on Gaza began when Hamas won the elections,” he said, blaming Israel for violating the six-month truce, which came to an end on Friday.
“The calm agreed upon under Egyptian mediation stipulated very clearly that the siege must be lifted, but even during the calm, Israel prevented the entry of basic goods into the Strip, and as far as we’re concerned, that is a harsh violation,” he said.
Earlier Sunday, Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin told cabinet ministers that Hamas is capable of firing rockets that can strike targets as distant from Gaza as the outskirts of the Negev capital of Be’er Sheva.
IDF girding for Gaza border escalation
Security sources had said Saturday that the Israel Defense Forces is preparing to escalate its activities at the Gaza Strip border in response to continuing Qassam rocket and mortar fire into the western Negev.
Nineteen rockets struck the western Negev on Sunday, wounding one person.
On Saturday alone 13 rockets and 20 mortar rounds were fired into Israel. No one was injured, but one rocket damaged a kibbutz building. The violence came after Hamas’ official announcement that it would not extend its six-month cease-fire with Israel.
The Israel Air Force has staged a number of operations over the Strip in the past two days in an effort to weaken the rocket launchers.
An air force strike in Beit Lahia Saturday killed Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant Ali Hijazi, 25, while he was trying to launch rockets. Two others were wounded. Though affiliated with Fatah, the organization’s branch in Gaza does not operate under the instruction of the movement’s leadership in the West Bank.
Security sources on Saturday told Haaretz that a new policy would be drafted in the coming days for dealing with rocket fire from the Strip. Israel will ratchet up air force strikes, which will no longer be limited to rocket-launching cells themselves. They will also target weapons stores and workshops, as well as the heads of networks involved in rocket launching.
“We will have to take an aggressive line,” a security official said. “Israel gave Hamas an opportunity to gradually pull back the rocket strikes, but it didn’t respond. This level of violence, with close to 10 rockets fired a day, is unacceptable.”
Israel is taking into account that a military escalation could lead militants firing the Qassams from Gaza to expand their range of targets. Sources at Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service believe rockets launched from the Strip can now reach Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malakhi and the suburbs of Ashdod and Be’er Sheva.
Until now, Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the majority of rockets fired into Israel, and a number of smaller militant groups have claimed the rest.