Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday the bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip aims to deter Hamas but did not rule out a campaign to “conquer” the enclave’s Islamist rulers.
“There are only two ways that you can deal with them,” he said about Hamas in a Tel Aviv briefing for a group of foreign ambassadors.
“You can either conquer them, and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them, and we are engaged right now in forceful deterrence, but I have to say we don’t rule out anything.”
The hawkish premier insisted Israel “didn’t seek” the escalation that began on May 10 when Hamas fired rockets towards Jerusalem after demanding that Israeli security personnel vacate the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site.
Netanyahu linked the dramatic surge in violence to a decision by Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas to cancel Palestinian elections that had been scheduled for this weekend.
Abbas’s secular Fatah movement had reached a deal with its long-term rivals Hamas to hold the vote, but Abbas cancelled it citing Israel’s refusal to guarantee voting in annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Hamas accused Abbas of perpetrating a “coup” against the agreement, and of giving Israel a veto over the Palestinian right to vote.
Palestinian experts have said Hamas is now seeking to establish itself as the real defenders of Palestinians against Israel, and as a more forceful voice than Abbas’s Fatah.
Netanyahu said that when Hamas “saw that these elections were not going to take place, they sought to… incite riots, to incite violence, in order to further their political goals”.
He implied Hamas was also responsible for an escalation of unrest in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah area, where a Jewish settler effort to evict Palestinians from their homes has fuelled months of anger.
And he blamed the Islamists for the clashes at Al-Aqsa, which was stormed by Israeli security forces in response to Palestinian stone-throwing during the holy month of Ramadan.
“I have to say that we didn’t expect quite a conflagration,” Netanyahu said.
“What we did was everything in our power to deescalate the potential conflict around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount,” he added, using the Jewish term for the Al-Aqsa compound, which is also a sacred site for Jews.
The goal of the Gaza campaign is to “degrade Hamas’ capabilities, their terror capabilities, and degrade their will,” Netanyahu said.
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