Netanyahu says Israel ready for Gaza campaign if needed; Palestinians plan huge march

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ran Tsabari
An Israeli soldier walks next to a battery of cannons near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ran Tsabari

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel is prepared to wage a broad military campaign in Gaza if needed, after a two-day flareup of cross-border fighting that has thrust his security policies to the fore two weeks before an election.

In Gaza, organisers announced plans for a massive protest on Saturday along the border to mark the anniversary of weekly demonstrations at which Israeli forces have, according to Gaza medical officials, already killed nearly 200 Palestinians.

Israel launched air strikes and moved troops and armour reinforcements to the Gaza border this week after a rocket attack from the Hamas Islamist-run enclave wounded seven Israelis in a village north of Tel Aviv on Monday.

"All Israelis should know that if a comprehensive campaign is required, we will enter it strong and safe, and after we have exhausted all of the other possibilities," Netanyahu said after visiting the Gaza frontier and meeting with Israeli commanders.

Although this week's fighting has since died down amid Egyptian mediation, Israel's security posture towards Gaza will be tested again by what are expected to be massive demonstrations on Saturday.

The United Nations Human Rights Council said last week that Israeli security forces may have committed war crimes by using excessive force at the protests. Israel says the protests are used as cover by militants to attack the frontier, and lethal force is needed to safeguard border towns from infiltration.

"The military will resort to a very strong hand against anyone trying to confront our troops," Israeli security cabinet minister Arye Deri told Army Radio. "Let no one blame Israel after."

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005. Two years later, Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, took power in the territory. Israel fought three wars against the group from 2007-2014.

Since the last war five years ago, the sides have repeatedly pulled back from the brink of another major conflict. The weekly border protests have instead become a focus for confrontation.

Palestinians say the protests are not futile despite having failed to bring improvement in living conditions.

"This has achieved something. We have explained the Palestinian cause to all humans, to the whole world," said Khalil Shahin of Nusseirat refugee camp, whose son Imad was killed at the fence. "We have made clear our cause will never die."

The protesters call for Palestinians to be allowed to return to lands their families fled or were forced to abandon in Israel, and a lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian security blockade that has brought Gaza's economy to a state of near-collapse.


GENERATION WITH NO HOPE

According to a U.N. humanitarian report in December, 53 percent of Gazans live in poverty and 54 percent are unemployed. Sameh el-Sakani, a 26-year-old protester, said a generation had grown up with no hope.

"You have a generation born in the 1990s that has nothing. Some study for four or five years in university only to have no job," he said. "We see nothing. On the contrary, the blockade was tightened."

Security is a major issue for Netanyahu in Israel's April 9 election. Beset by corruption allegations that he denies, he is facing his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

Netanyahu cut short a visit to the United States after seven Israelis were injured in Monday's initial rocket strike in the village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza. Twelve Palestinians were wounded by Israeli retaliatory attacks, Gaza health officials said.

Televised scenes of a high-tech military facing off against crowds of youths armed mostly with rocks or improvised kite-and balloon-borne firebombs bedevil Netanyahu's government.

It frets about being tripped into another Gaza war. But it also cannot ignore the rattled nerves of Israelis near the border, who say they live under constant threat of rockets and incendiary kites flown across the border.

"What has happened here over the past year has been hell," said Yifat Ben-Shushan, an Israeli mother of two from Nativ Haasara, a few hundred yards (metres) from the border.


(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)