The Israel Defense Forces ground operation in the Gaza Strip began after the inner cabinet met in secret on Thursday night in Tel Aviv. In a deceptive maneuver intended to give the impression that no significant expansion of the military operation would happen in the next 24 hours, Israeli officials told reporters the security cabinet would only be meeting on Friday morning.
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A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cabinet ministers had already approved the ground operation when it met Tuesday night, after the Egyptian cease-fire initiative fell through. At the meeting, cabinet members were briefed in detail on the various stages of the operational plans. As the meeting concluded, the ministers authorized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to decide on both the nature of the ground operation and its timing. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked in the same meeting for the opportunity to be given to her to express her stand over a ground offensive. On Thursday, after it was made clear that Hamas is escalating its actions and has rejected the cease-fire, Livni said that she supported the launch of ground operations.
The same official also said that despite the authorization, the ground operation was delayed in order to give the Egyptians another opportunity to forge a cease-fire. On Wednesday, Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen, Netanyahu’s envoy for the peace process Isaac Molho and the head of the Defense Ministry’s political-military affairs department, Amos Gilad, traveled to Cairo.
The Israeli delegation shared the iftar, the meal breaking the daily Ramadan fast, with Egyptian intelligence chief Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Fareed al-Tohami and his senior advisors. After meeting for a few hours, the delegation returned to Israel. The message Cohen, Molho and Gilad brought back was that Hamas is only increasing its demands, hardening its position toward a possible cease-fire.
“We found out that we, the Egyptians and [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] are more or less in the same place regarding the need for a cease-fire,” said the senior official. “But we also found out that Hamas is playing a totally different ballgame. We felt that they’re forcefully trying to sabotage the Egyptian attempts and mediation, and escalate the conflict.”
After the Israeli delegation returned to Israel on Thursday morning, pessimistic about the chances for a cease-fire, the decision to begin a ground operation on Thursday night began to take shape. The decision was bolstered by the fact that Hamas did not even honor the six-hour, UN-initiated humanitarian cease-fire on Thursday.
In the lead-up to the ground operation, the Prime Minister’s Office made what seemed like a series of attempts at disinformation in the media. On Thursday afternoon, the BBC and Reuters reported that a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas would go into effect at 6 A.M. Friday. Phone calls from dozens of reporters who called the PMO to confirm the reports went unanswered.
Cabinet ministers told journalists who asked about the cease-fire reports that they had no information about the developments.
Later on Thursday evening the media were told the inner cabinet was scheduled to convene at 11 A.M. Friday to discuss the situation. In fact, the security cabinet was meeting to hear updates about the imminent ground operation. Immediately afterward, about half an hour before the operation began, Israel informed the United States of the decision to expand the operation and invade the Gaza Strip. After Israeli forces where already inside the Strip, Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talked on the phone.
After the ground incursion began, the PMO released a statement saying the operation would initially focus on destroying terror tunnels from the Strip to Israel.
The statement also said the decision to expand the operation was made after Israel accepted the Egyptian proposal and Hamas rejected it. “Operation Protective Edge will continue until it achieves its objective – to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.