TEL AVIV // Israel's foreign minister yesterday called attempts to reach a ceasefire with Hamas a "grave mistake", saying that Israel should instead try to oust the Islamic movement from the Gaza Strip.
The strong remarks came two days after at least 19 Palestinians were killed during a weekend that marked the worst clashes between Israel and Hamas in more than two years.
"The aim of calm is a grave mistake because calm is used [by Hamas] to smuggle more and more arms," Mr Lieberman told an Israeli radio station yesterday.
Mr Lieberman added that Hamas was increasing its arsenal of powerful rockets and missiles that it then aims on southern Israeli towns and communities, and that are likely to eventually reach Tel Aviv.
Mr Lieberman, the second-most powerful official in Israel's governing coalition, stated that Israel should also work towards eliminating Hamas's presence from Gaza. "Our central aim must be to stop the arms smuggling by Hamas, but a second aim must be to topple the Hamas regime," he said.
Mr Lieberman's comments emerged just as Gaza and southern Israel appeared calm yesterday as United Nations and Egyptian mediators worked to negotiate a truce. While Israel's foreign minister does not typically determine the country's approach on military issues, his party is a key member of the ruling coalition and is likely to use its power to influence security policy. Mr Lieberman's stance reflects a growing debate within the government about how to curtail rocket fire from Gaza.
Yesterday, Mr Lieberman's statements were echoed by several other ministers from his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party. National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel "should have finished off the job in Operation Cast Lead", referring to the three-week offensive that Israel launched in December 2008-January 2009, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including many civilians.
Nevertheless, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has indicated that Israel would prefer to act with restraint in Gaza, possibly amid concern that civilian casualties caused by Israeli attacks may draw condemnation from abroad at a time that Israel already faces international criticism for its settlement expansion.
Speaking to his cabinet during a weekly meeting on Sunday, the premier said that Israel intends to "restore the quiet" if Hamas does the same, but warned that the army's response would be "much more severe" if attacks from Gaza continue.
The apparent disagreement between Mr Lieberman and Mr Netanyahu on Israel's Gaza strategy emerges as the two politicians battle to draw more hard-line supporters to their respective parties amid a right-wing shift in the Israeli electorate.
Analysts have said that Mr Lieberman has long vied for the premiership, and may become a candidate for the post in the next election that is scheduled for next year.
In his radio interview, Mr Lieberman said that the agreement that his party had signed with Mr Netanyahu's Likud movement in order to join the coalition stated that the government will work to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza. He also indicated that the differences over Gaza would not prompt him to exit the government.
"We are going to do what was agreed upon," he said in his radio interview. "We know how to get what was in the agreement and what we signed with the Likud without threats and without crises."
He added that the relative calm on the border between Israel and Gaza since Israel's onslaught had been used by Hamas to rearm itself with more sophisticated rockets and build up its fighting forces.
The latest clashes last weekend were sparked after a rocket fired by Gaza militants hit an Israeli school bus last Thursday, seriously injuring a 16-year-old boy. The Israeli military said that Hamas and other Gaza militants fired more than 130 rockets into its territory since Thursday in response to Israeli retaliatory air raids that have killed more than 19 Palestinian militants and civilians.
While Hamas has claimed responsibility for Thursday's strike, it said that it did not know that the bus carried children and that its rockets lacked the technology to avoid civilian casualties.
On Sunday, Hamas made a rare appeal to convey to the Israeli public that it is seeking a truce, telling a state-run Israeli radio station that the group would be prepared to halt strikes.
Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of Hamas, said in Hebrew, which he learnt during the time he had spent in an Israeli prison: "We are interested in calm but want the Israeli military to stop its operations."
Other officials from Hamas have been quoted by news agencies as saying they were in contact with mediators to discuss how to restore calm.