In the wake of a rocket barrage fired from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel overnight, after the country had just cemented diplomatic relations with two Arab states, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians were trying to set back peace and vowed they would not succeed.
Netanyahu spoke as he flew back from Washington, where, the day before, he had signed US-brokered peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. During the signing ceremony of the so-called Abraham Accords two rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, one of which hit the city of Ashdod, injuring two people, one of them seriously. Overnight, Gaza terrorists launched another 13 rockets at the country as the Israel Defense Forces responded with airstrikes.
“I am not surprised that Palestinian terrorists fired at Israel exactly during this historic ceremony,” Netanyahu said in a statement from his office. “They want to set back peace. They won’t succeed in doing so.
“We will strike all those who reach out to harm us, and we will extend a hand in peace to all those whose hands are extended in peace to us,” Netanyahu said.
Hamas, the terror group that is the de facto ruler of Gaza, warned Israel it could face a military escalation in response to the airstrikes.
“The occupation (Israel) will pay the price for any aggression against our people or resistance sites and the response will be direct,” Hamas said in a statement.
“We will increase and expand our response to the extent that the occupation persists in its aggression,” the group added.
The Palestinians have rejected the normalization deals between Israel and the UEA and Bahrain.
President Reuven Rivlin offered his sympathy and support for southern Israel, tweeting, “Also this morning we are with the residents who had hours of rocket fire and impacts. We are full of appreciation for their resilience.”
“Our prayers are with those injured in the rocket attacks last night in Ashdod, and our support for the IDF which has been responding to the attacks from Gaza,” Rivlin wrote. “We will not allow terrorism to go unanswered. The security of Israeli citizens will not be neglected.”
Netanyahu came under fire from opposition lawmakers over his handling of attacks from Gaza and for his trip to Washington at a time when the country is dealing with a major coronavirus outbreak that pushed the government to order a three-week lockdown that will begin at the end of the week.
Among those who panned the prime minister were two of his former defense ministers.
אנחנו איתכם, תושבי הדרום היקרים.
באתי אתמול בלילה לפגוש את תושבי השכונה באשדוד שספגו את פגיעת הרקטה שפצעה קשה אדם מבוגר,
בזמן שהוא אסף מזון במאפייה כדי להעביר לנצרכים.
חנויות שחטפו את ההדף. ברוך השם רובן היו כבר סגורות.
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) September 16, 2020
Opposition MK Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Yamina party, visited Ashdod in the hours after the rocket landed and tweeted that it “is not preordained that the residents of the south of the country must be hit by missiles forever and ever.
“This is the result of many years of losing deterrence, a lack of initiative and passivity,” wrote Bennett, a former ally of Netanyahu who served as defense minister in 2019-2020.
“We can create a totally different reality. It won’t be easy. It is possible and necessary,” he continued.
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, defense minister from 2016 to 2018, told Radio 103FM that the rocket fire during the signing ceremony “was expected” and would have been discussed by defense officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the chief of staff.
He said there was no point in Israel launching a military campaign in Gaza as it has done before in response to rocket attacks “if you don’t know what you are going to do the next day.”
“As long as there is no overall concept, and here and there is only an attempt to buy quiet and pay protection fees, we will continue to be humiliated,” Liberman said, referring to foreign aid that Israel has agreed to let Qatar supply to Gaza as part of unofficial agreements with the Hamas terror group to stop border violence.
Liberman, noting that it was the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain that signed the peace treaties in Washington rather than those countries’ leaders, said it was “very incongruous” that Netanyahu was at the ceremony rather than staying at home to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting financial crisis.
“The US secretary of state was there, the foreign minister of Bahrain was there, the foreign minister of the Emirates was there, the only foreign minister that wasn’t there was the Israeli foreign minister,” Liberman said, pointing out that according to protocol it is foreign ministers who are supposed to sign diplomatic agreements.
Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Netanyahu was indeed forced to urgently request authorization from Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in order to sign the treaties, after the prime minister had already arrived in Washington, as the protocol had apparently been overlooked.
The rocket fire represented the first attacks since an unofficial ceasefire agreement was reached between Israel and terror groups in the Strip late last month and the largest barrage since February.
“On this historic night of peace, we received a reminder from our enemies that we must always be strong and prepared to defend Israeli citizens on all fronts and at all times — and this we will do,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in response to the attack.
Israeli aircraft conducted two rounds of strikes in the Gaza Strip before dawn Wednesday, the army said and reiterated that Israel holds Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the Strip.
Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations brokered an unofficial ceasefire agreement between Israel and terror groups in the Strip last month, following weeks of heightened tensions between the two sides.