16,000 reservists called up; IDF chief prepares for Gaza ground assault
IDF continues firing on targets in Gaza as infantry and armored units gather near the border • On third day of operation, IDF hits dozens of Gaza targets from air and sea • "The prime minister's instructions are to hit them hard," says official.
Shlomo Cesana and Lilach Shoval
An air force strike on Gaza on Thursday. Dozens of Palestinian long-range rockets were destroyed in the first wave of attacks.
Photo credit: AP
Self-propelled 55 mm artillery gun ready for action on the Gaza border on Thursday.
Photo credit: Reuters
Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right) with GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo in a war room near Gaza on Thursday.
Photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Unit
Operation Pillar of Defense entered its third day on Friday, and the Israel Defense Forces were preparing for a ground assault in Gaza by calling up thousands of reservists. The reservists will be joining the soldiers already moving toward Gaza, after IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz instructed forces to accelerate preparations for a ground operation. So far, 16,000 reservists have been sent voice messages telling them to report for duty.
In the meantime, the IDF struck dozens of targets in Gaza from the air and sea on Thursday and well into Friday. During the day, the government denied reports of a cease-fire, with one senior official saying "There is no talk of that at this point. We are continuing the operation and not discussing an exit strategy."
Army Radio reported on Friday, however, that Israel agreed to halt all offensive operations during a visit to Gaza by Egypt's prime minister, Hesham Kandil. However, once rockets were fired from the Strip, the temporary ceasefire was suspended.
On Friday, a ground assault seemed imminent as infantry, tank and artillery units amassed close to the Gaza border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday and later met with Homefront Defense Minister Avi Dichter, Israel Security Agency (ISA) chief Yoram Cohen and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, to discuss the situation in Gaza and how to proceed with the operation.
The defense minister requested and received approval from the government to call up a total of 30,000 reservists and to prepare the military for a large-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
The political-security cabinet and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee authorized both Netanyahu and Barak to expand the offensive in Gaza as they saw fit. The committee was scheduled to meet again on Friday to receive updates on the situation and to make further decisions if necessary.
As most of the long-range rockets Hamas possessed before the operation were destroyed by air strikes on the first day of the offensive, government officials expressed doubt on Thursday of Hamas' ability to launch missiles at the central Gush Dan region. One official said they may have a limited capability to fire such missiles and the possibility is being taken into account by the relevant authorities. It is clear, he said, that Hamas will try to score some morale-boosting points by firing missiles at Tel Aviv.
"The prime minister's instructions are to hit them hard and prepare for an expansion of the operation," the official said.
Despite the assessments, however, an IDF spokesman confirmed on Thursday night that three Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles had in fact landed not far from Tel Aviv in an apparent attempt by Palestinian groups to make good on their promise to strike the city during the conflict. The missile launches triggered sirens throughout Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak but no injuries or damage were reported in the incident. Netanyahu heard the sirens himself during his visit to the Kirya, the IDF's General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv. Former Defense Minister MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) remarked on the situation on Friday, saying that the operation in Gaza must continue in its current form. Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that he believed the operation was achieving its objectives.
"Besides the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, an achievement in and of itself, many weapons stores were destroyed," Ben-Eliezer said. "We mustn't stop until they realize in Gaza that the rules of the game have changed and that Israel will no longer live with the regular violence-truce-violence routine."
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office expressed satisfaction over U.S. President Barack Obama's support for Netanyahu and the operation on Wednesday. Netanyahu spoke with Obama on the phone, with the president agreeing that Israel has the right to defend itself. British officials echoed Obama's support.
The American president also spoke with Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Morsi and asked him to do all he could to prevent an escalation of the situation, which apparently prompted Morsi to send Kandil to Gaza in an attempt to broker a cease-fire.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon is also seeking a way to end the conflict and is scheduled to arrive in Israel next week to discuss the matter with Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak. He will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed his dismay at a statement by Russian officials calling Israel the "aggressor." Netanyahu discussed the situation with other world leaders as well, including French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Meanwhile, IDF units began moving southward, amassing near the Gaza border. Troops belonging to the paratroopers, Givati and Kfir brigades, as well as tank units and division staff commanders streamed to the south in preparation for a possible ground assault in Gaza..
Officers of the Gaza Brigade and Southern Command held meetings on Thursday to assess the situation and confirm their plans should a green light be given to enter Gaza.
Local and foreign media outlets covered the buildup of forces near the border and the IDF Spokesman's Unit distributed images of the buildup to news agencies in an apparent attempt to tell the world that the IDF is ready for more intense action in Gaza if rockets continue to be launched at Israel.
Although the IDF has attacked more than 350 targets in Gaza up to this point, hundreds more appear on lists prepared by the IDF before the operation began.
Palestinian media reported on Thursday that the air force struck a target near the home of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a possible warning to Hamas leaders that they too are in the IDF's crosshairs. IDF spokesmen refused to comment on the report.
In an address filmed by the PMO, Netanyahu said "Over the past day, Hamas has received strong blows from us. In addition to precision strikes on its military leadership, the IDF successfully struck Fajr missiles meant for Tel Aviv, Gush Dan and even further north."
Barak spoke to the media as well on Thursday and said "The launches against Gush Dan, and the volume of rockets in general, constitute an escalation. There will be a price that the other side will have to pay for this. I have instructed the IDF to expand the draft of reservists and prepare for any development that may occur."
Barak has ordered that the delivery of a fifth Iron Dome anti-rocket battery to the IAF's Aerial Defense Network be pushed up to Saturday night. The battery had originally been scheduled to be delivered to the IAF at the start of 2013.
Lieberman spoke with his counterparts throughout the world and told them that Israel is doing all it can to avoid harming innocent civilians in Gaza, although the rocket fire from Gaza is aimed directly at citizens residing in Israeli cities. "We do not intend to make do with a cease-fire which will inevitably be violated after one or two weeks. We intend to build a deterrence that will prevent the Palestinians from resuming terrorist activities against us."