The worst of the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip has subsided a day after the violence threatened to escalate into war. But Israeli Cabinet officials and top military officials appeared deeply divided over how to respond to continuing low-tech attacks from across the border.
The militants fired nearly 200 mortar rounds, rockets and missiles at Israeli communities Saturday as Israeli fighter jets bombed military installations throughout Gaza in the biggest eruption of violence along the border since 2014.
Hamas announced what it said was an internationally brokered cease-fire late that night. But incendiary kites and balloons — homemade devices that are often flown by children and carry explosives or flaming rags — continued to sail across the border on Sunday.
The Israeli air force said it retaliated by attacking Hamas militants who were launching balloons, though no casualties were reported.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday that Israel will not sit idly by while Hamas launches “rockets, kites, unmanned drones or anything.”
But how to stop those attacks is a contentious issue.
Hadashot news and other major Israeli media reported an extraordinary exchange that they said occurred late Saturday at a meeting of Israel’s security Cabinet.
“Why not shoot at anyone firing aerial weapons against our communities and our troops?” the education minister, Naftali Bennett, proposed to the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
“They are terrorists in every sense,” Bennett said.
Eizenkot responded, “I don’t think shooting at youths and children who are those sometimes launching the kites and balloons is the right thing to do. Are you proposing we drop a bomb from a plane on a cell of kite and balloon launchers?”
Bennett answered in the affirmative.
“I oppose that operationally and morally,” Eizenkot said.
In a briefing to soldiers, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the commander of Israel’s Southern Command, said that instead of targeting individual kite launchers, Israel would target Hamas.
We “have decided that we will create a situation in which the price Hamas will have to pay will be increasingly high, even for the fires,” he said.
The incendiary devices have become a staple of Gazan protests against Israel over the last several months. They have caused extensive damage to agricultural fields in Israel.
Still, they are a lesser concern than artillery attacks. By Sunday, those had stopped. Israelis living in the border region were allowed to leave air raid shelters.
The details of the truce announced by Hamas were unclear. Israel did not acknowledge any agreement and even deployed its Iron Dome antimissile defense system near Tel Aviv in apparent anticipation of more rocket launches.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced accusations from the most hard-line ministers in his government that he had not responded with adequate force to attacks from Gaza.
But he said at a Cabinet meeting Sunday that the bombing missions a day earlier dealt Hamas its “harshest blow” since the 2014 Gaza war, which lasted about seven weeks and resulted in more than 2,000 Palestinians killed and more than 70 deaths on the Israeli side.
“We hit Hamas in a significant way and hard,” Netanyahu said. “Our policy is clear: Whoever hurts us, we will hit them with great strength.”
Two deaths were reported in Gaza on Sunday. Hamas police spokesman Col. Ayman Batniji said it was investigating an early-morning explosion that killed 35-year-old Ahmad Mansour Hassan and his 13-year-old son, Louay Ahmed Hassan.
The circumstances of the explosion remained unclear, but Hassan was buried in a martial ceremony that usually signifies the death of a Hamas militant.
Addressing mourners at Hassan’s funeral, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, vowed that his organization “will not stop until all its objectives are achieved.”
Foremost of those, he said, is the lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip that was instituted by Israel and Egypt in 2007, after Hamas wrested control of the territory from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, visited Gaza on Sunday and called on both sides to “back down from the brink of war and stop the escalation.”
“Yesterday we were on the verge of a real war,” he said at a news conference in Gaza City. “This confrontation is not wanted by anyone and no one wants it, and everyone will lose in it.”