Hamas warns Israel: Launch ground assault on Gaza Strip and we will kidnap soldiers
Hamas leaders issued a blunt warning to Israel against invading the Gaza Strip yesterday by promising that it would exploit any ground incursion to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
The threat came as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, pondered sending thousands of troops into the tiny coastal enclave after days of aerial and naval bombardment in which, according to the United Nations, more than 100 people have been killed and 340 Palestinian houses have been destroyed.
About 33,000 Israeli reservists have been mobilised and are poised near the Gaza frontier in southern Israel with tanks and artillery for an invasion order that could signal an even bloodier phase of the conflict.
Navi Pillay, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, criticised Israel's practice of targeting houses used by known militants, saying it contravened international law – in contrast to Israeli claims – and had displaced 2,000 people. Mr Netanyahu issued a stern riposte, saying international condemnation would not deter Israel from "striking the terrorists who are attacking us".
He said Israel had hit more than 1,000 targets since launching a major offensive on Tuesday to deplete Hamas military capacities and made it clear that a ground attack was under consideration, saying that "we are weighing all possibilities and preparing for all possibilities". Fawzeh Barhoom, a Hamas spokesman, said such a move would only make it easier to abduct Israeli troops, which the Islamist movement would use as bargaining chips to wring concessions from Israel.
"If they launch a ground war, they will be shortening the path for us to kidnap many soldiers in order to make a deal to end the bloodshed and release the detainees as happened in the past," he said, referring to the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held in Gaza for five years before his release in 2011 in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The kidnap threat was reinforced by Ihab al-Ghussain, Gaza's deputy information minister and a Hamas member, who called it "a normal response "to Israel's actions.
"They are coming to us," he said. "Israel started this, so I will do whatever I can to stop it, even if it means kidnapping Israelis. You are talking about thousands of Palestinians in (Israeli) prisons for whom the peace process did nothing. The only way we can help these people is to kidnap Israelis and get these people out of jail."
The prospect of kidnapping was certain to touch a raw nerve with Israel's leaders. Last month, three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank and later found murdered – a crime Israel has blamed on Hamas, which has neither confirmed nor denied the accusation.
The threat to Israel followed a warning from Hamas's military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, that it would fire on its neighbour's main international airport, near Tel Aviv, in the next phase of its rocket offensive.
"The armed wing of the Hamas movement has decided to respond to the Israeli aggression, and we warn you against carrying out flights to Ben-Gurion airport, which will be one of our targets today because it also hosts a military airbase," the brigades said in a statement.
Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict and prevent further escalation seemed to be falling on stony ground, despite an offer by US President Barack Obama to help to mediate a ceasefire.
While Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, urged the UN to negotiate a truce, Egypt – which was being asked to mediate, having helped to broker a ceasefire that ended an earlier conflict in November 2012 – accused both sides of being "stubborn".
Israeli air strikes killed a further 11 people in Gaza yesterday, including five members of the same family in the southern town of Rafah who died when their house was struck by a missile. The latest casualties brought the number killed to at least 103 – most of them non-combatants, including at least 23 children, according to Gaza health officials – since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge this week with the aim of stopping rockets being fired by militants.
There was little sign yesterday of that goal having been achieved as missiles continued to hit Israeli towns and cities. One struck a petrol station in Ashdod, 20 miles from Gaza, injuring eight people, one of them severely. Some 53 missiles landed in Israel after midnight on Thursday, while another 18 were stopped by the Iron Dome anti-missile defence, the Israeli army said.
It said 460 missiles had struck Israeli territory since Tuesday, with Iron Dome shooting down another 121.
There were concerns of a wider conflict when three missiles from Lebanon landed near a kibbutz in Israel's Galilee region.
So far the only Israeli casualty has been an elderly woman who collapsed rushing to a bomb shelter and later died. (© Daily Telegraph, London)