Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said Saturday that Palestinian factions in Gaza used only "half of their force" during the latest round of hostilities with Israel in May, vowing that another escalation would "change the face of the Middle East."
Speaking before academics and public figures in Gaza, Sinwar said that the latest fighting with Israel was meant only "to test our strength."
The Islamist leader also mentioned for the first time the death toll among the militant factions in Gaza during the campaign. "Ninety fighters were killed at most in the latest escalation, but Israel aimed at more than 10,000 fighters. Israel planned to assassinate half of the resistance force and failed big time."
Sinwar stressed the connection between the fighting in Gaza and the violence that erupted in East Jerusalem earlier in May. "We've proven to Israel that somebody's protecting the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a strategic goal for the Palestinians." He added that the riots that ensued in Jewish-Arab cities in Israel as well as the West Bank "constituted a more significant leverage that the rockets (fired at Israel by Hamas)."
Sinwar's remarks come after Israeli right-wing organizations said they are planning to hold a Flag March next week through Jerusalem's Damascus Gate – a flash point of tensions in the lead-up to the Gaza flare-up – and pass through the Arab Quarter on the way to the Western Wall, where mass prayers will be held after the march.
Against the backdrop of the planned march, Hamas called on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem on Saturday to arrive en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque on Thursday "to protect it from (Israel's) plans."
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi meanwhile called on Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to cancel the Flag March, citing a risk of "Great danger of violence."
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In an advertisement for the march, the organizations wrote, "We must unite Jerusalem to establish victory! We're coming back to march through the streets of Jerusalem with our heads held high carrying Israeli flags."
Moreover, Sinwar criticized the Arab countries that normalized ties with Israel, claiming they are responsible for the flare-up. "The normalization of ties between some Arab countries and Israel and the intra-Palestinian division encouraged Israel to launch this aggression."
Israeli airstrikes carried out in response to heavy rocket fire at central and southern Israel caused severe destruction in Gaza. Addressing the issue, Sinwar said that "We'll open the door to all those who support the rebuilding of the Strip, and we won't use funds earmarked for reconstruction for military needs."
Sources in Hamas said Friday that the organization has communicated to Israel that if it does not allow the transfer of Qatari funds to Gaza by next week, it will renew its protests on the Gaza border – an act that may lead to an additional escalation, just weeks after Israel and Hamas declared a cease-fire.
Qatar pledged $360 million, to be paid out over the course of the year, to the Gaza Strip in January. The money is to be used to pay Hamas salaries, provide financial aid to families in need and to operate the Strip's power stations.
Since the beginning of the latest Israel-Gaza escalation, no Qatari money has been allowed to pass into Gaza. According to a report in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, the Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Amadi clarified to Hamas that Israel is preventing the transfer of funds.
On Monday, Sinwar said that Hamas is ready to immediately engage in negotiations to return Israeli civilians and bodies of soldiers held captive in Gaza.
Sinwar said there had been recent progress on the issue, but that it stopped because of political instability in Israel. "In the coming days we will see discussion in Cairo" in an effort to come to agreements, he said. He also advised people to "(r)emember the number 1,111. You'll find out later on what it means."
The bodies of two Israeli soldiers are held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, as well as two Israeli civilians, Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu.