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Israel 'closer than ever' to defeating Hamas, says minister


An Israeli official has said Israel doesn't want to start a war in Gaza, but admitted toppling Hamas was still "definitely an option." Israel has denied it agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas following last week's fighting.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters Sunday that Israel was "closer than ever" to toppling Hamas in Gaza "if there is no other choice."

The remarks by Steinitz, who also sits on Israel's security cabinet, come on the back of two days of fierce cross-border violence between Hamas and Israel last week.

Steinitz also told local broadcaster Kan that Israel had not signed a ceasefire agreement with Hamas following the latest escalations, contradicting reports coming from officials in Gaza.

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Toppling Hamas was still "definitely an option," the minister said, before adding that Israel was not interested in escalating the conflict into a full-scale war

Gaza on the brink?

Tensions between the two sides have been mounting since March, when Palestinians in Gaza began staging regular protests near the border with Israel.

However, recent weeks have seen at least three major flare-ups. The most recent, on Thursday, saw Israel launch a series of airstrikes on Gaza after Hamas troops launched some 180 rockets and mortar rounds across the border the night before. Three Palestinians were killed by the Israeli strikes, including a mother and her 18-month-old daughter, while seven Israelis were wounded in the Palestinian rocket fire.

It marked the heaviest exchanges of fire between the two sides since 2014's Operation Protective Edge.

Read more: Hamas official on Gaza bloodshed: 'Not expected to be like this'

Netanyahu demands Hamas ceasefire

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out for the first time about last week's deadly flare-up on the Gaza border, demanding a "total" ceasefire from Hamas' rulers.

"We are in the midst of a campaign against terror in Gaza," Netanyahu said at the start of a Cabinet meeting. "It will not end with one blow.

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"Our demand is clear: a total ceasefire. We shall not be satisfied with less than that," he added.

Hardliners in Netanyahu's Cabinet have called on the prime minister to act more strongly against the latest Hamas' latest aggressions. 

Read more: Ceasefire on Israel-Gaza border largely holds as UN warns sides are on 'brink of war'

Little scope for a truce

The recent uptick in violence has seen UN officials and Egypt increase efforts to secure a truce deal between Israel and Hamas, albeit with little success so far. 

Almost 170 Palestinian protestors have been killed by Israeli military fire during the protesters, while one Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper, since clashes began on the border in March.

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and much of the West, has demanded the lifting of an 11-year blockade on Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt.

Israel, meanwhile, has demanded Hamas and its followers stop launching incendiary projectiles across the border, burning swathes of Israeli territory.

On Sunday, Israeli daily Haaretz reported that officials in Jerusalem were formulating a plan to assassinate several senior Hamas leaders, although it would first wait to see the outcome of the upcoming negotiations brokered by Egypt and the UN before going ahead.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Palestinian PM Rami Hamdallah targeted

The convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah of the West Bank-based Fatah group was targeted as he made a rare visit to Gaza on March 13. The Palestinian Authority said it held Hamas responsible, having failed to provide adequate security. Hamas claimed the attack was aimed at hurting efforts to achieve unity and reconciliation.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Land Day march

Some 30,000 Palestinians took part in the first of the demonstrations on March 30, marking Land Day, named for the 1976 Arab protests against Israeli plans to expropriate land. Some demonstrators ran at the border fence and 16 were killed by Israeli troops with others injured, and some dying later.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Netanyahu: 'We will hurt them'

Speaking on April 9 in the Israeli town of Sderot, near Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We have one clear and simple rule and we seek to express it constantly: If someone tries to attack you — rise up and attack him. We will not allow, here on the Gaza border, them to hurt us. We will hurt them."

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Protesters injured

Palestinians ran to help a young man injured during the border protest on April 13. Stones had been thrown at border guards and the Israeli troops fired on the demonstrators. Some 45 Palestinians died and hundreds were injured between March 30 and April 27.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Boy killed on April 20

Protest continued on April 20th, with some Palestinian protesters using kites to transport Molotov cocktails and firebombs over the fence. Israeli snipers killed at least four more Palestinians on April 20th, including a 15-year-old boy. The UN Middle East envoy dubbed the killing "outrageous."

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
May 15: US Embassy officially moved to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv

US President Donald Trump's daugher Ivanka is part of the delegation that opened the new US Embassy in Jerusalem. The transfer of the embassy triggered a fresh wave of protests in which 62 people were killed. The deaths have considerably heightened tensions in the area.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
US no longer seen as partner in Middle East negotiations

As the US celebrated its embassy move from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, Palestinian protests escalated. The events coincided with the 70th anniversary of the foundation of modern-day Israel, and Nakba Day, when Palestinians recall those who fled or were expelled as Israel was established.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
More than 60 people were killed in protests

Palestinians carried away a protester injured on May 15th after demonstrations marking the 70th anniversary of Nakba.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Palestinian youths run from tear gas

Hamas official Salah al-Bardaweel said on Palestinian television that all but 12 of the dead were members of Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization is planning to pursue a war crimes complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Israeli airstrikes pound Hamas military targets in Gaza

Following an increase in cross-border violence in mid-July, Israel pounded Hamas military targets in Gaza, while Palestinian militants fired more than 170 rockets and mortars into Israel. Two Palestinian boys, aged 15 and 16, were killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to Gaza's health ministry. Three Israelis were injured after a rocket landed on a residential home in the Israeli city of Sderot.

How the Gaza protests against Israel escalated this year
Israel temporarily closes its Kerem Shalom cargo crossing with the Gaza Strip

Days later, Israel blocked all fuel and gas transfers through the Kerem Shalom crossing with the Gaza Strip for six days "in light of the continued terrorist attempts of Hamas." Israel's defense ministry said essential food and medicine deliveries would still get through. The crossing had been shuttered to commercial trade a week earlier.

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dm/rc (dpa, AFP)