JERUSALEM — A senior Israeli Cabinet minister on Wednesday threatened to kill the leader of the militant Hamas movement ruling Gaza, vowing that another "large campaign" looms in which Israel will hit the militants hard.
Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, a former military general who commanded the Gaza region, said Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar should "recalculate his route" before the next engagement.
"Yehiyeh Sinwar's time is limited. He will not end his life in an old folks' home," he said, at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference. "He has to behave himself."
Israel and Hamas recently stepped back from the brink of their fourth war in a decade thanks to an Egyptian cease-fire.
Palestinian militants fired 460 rockets and mortar shells into Israel last week in 24 hours, in response to a botched Israeli raid that left seven Palestinian militants and a senior Israeli officer dead. Israel responded with a wave of airstrikes. Seven Palestinians, including five militants, were killed, while a Palestinian laborer working in Israel was killed by a Gaza rocket. It was the heaviest fighting since the 2014 Gaza war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the time was not right for a wider confrontation in Gaza, but he has come under heavy criticism for agreeing to a cease-fire. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in protest, accusing Netanyahu of being soft on terrorism, and another hard-line minister threatened to do the same — which would have sparked early elections — before backing down.
In the wake of the political crisis, and with early elections still a distinct possibility, ministers have begun talking tough about the next round of fighting.
"We are now close to a no-choice war against Hamas in Gaza. We must strike hard to restore deterrence," Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told the conference. "Any attack on Israeli soil must be met with a tough response ... if Sinwar or (Hamas political chief Ismail) Haniyeh were to fire a bullet or a rocket at a soldier or Israeli citizens they will pay with their heads."
Israel assassinated Hamas leaders Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in 2004, and tried to kill another leader, Khaled Mashaal, in 1997. The killing of senior members of the group has had no discernable impact on its operations or ideology.
Hamas has staged near-weekly border protests since March in an effort to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. The blockade has ravaged Gaza's economy, and Israel refuses to lift it unless Hamas disarms, a demand rejected by militant group, which is pledged to Israel's destruction.
Demonstrators each week have approach the border fence, throwing firebombs, grenades and burning tires at Israeli troops. Israeli snipers have killed about 170 people, most of them unarmed. Israel says it is defending its border against attackers, but it has come under heavy international criticism for shooting unarmed people.
"Nobody wants war in Gaza now. It will be very damaging for everyone," said Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. "I hope we can step back from this terrible cycle where every Friday we are wondering if we will go to war or not."