Amid spiraling Gaza violence, Bennett lashes government’s ‘failed policy’

Education minister says defense minister’s ‘agreements’ with Hamas ‘have collapsed’ after Friday protest sees over 100 bombs, grenades hurled at troops, 7 Palestinians killed

A Palestinian protester throws a stone toward Israeli forces during clashes along the border fence, east of Gaza City on September 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
A Palestinian protester throws a stone toward Israeli forces during clashes along the border fence, east of Gaza City on September 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Israeli ministers exchanged barbs over the weekend over the escalating violence on the Gaza border, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett slamming the government’s policy on Gaza, saying it was insufficiently aggressive toward the Hamas terrorist group.

In a Sunday statement, Bennett, the chairman of the Jewish Home party blamed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for the continuing violence. Liberman’s coalition Yisrael Beytenu party swiftly responded by mocking Bennett’s “hysteria” and “jealousy.”

“The current situation is a direct result of Liberman’s policies toward the Strip,” said Bennett in a statement carried by Hebrew media. “Under the cover of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘responsibility,’ Liberman has subjected the residents of the south to the whims of Hamas. It’s time to tell the truth. The Liberman-Hamas agreements have collapsed. This isn’t how you manage a defense policy; this is what a failed policy looks like.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians protested along the Gaza border fence, throwing hand grenades, bombs, rocks, and burning tires in weekend clashes with IDF troops, who responded with tear gas, live fire, and airstrikes. The IDF said Saturday that the previous day’s protests were the worst in two months. Over 100 improvised bombs and grenades were hurled at Israeli troops during the riots, according to the army. The army released footage of the violent demonstrations, showing attempts to breach and sabotage the security fence.

Seven Palestinians were killed, including a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, and at least 210 Palestinians were wounded, including an 11-year-old boy, who was in serious condition, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. It said 90 of the wounded were hit by live fire.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The protest followed the breakdown of indirect talks with Israel over a ceasefire and warnings that the terror group Hamas, which rules Gaza, was gearing up for another conflict.

Bennett promised to raise a reexamination of the government’s policy toward Gaza at the next meeting of the security cabinet, of which both he and Liberman are members.

“All of Mr Bennett’s accusations are pure politics and have no connection to security,” Liberman said in response. “They are election campaign slogans with no content.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party was quick to respond Sunday, ridiculing Bennett’s “hysteria” and “jealousy.”

“The constant attacks by the education minister against the defense minister seem to show his hysteria and jealousy. Let Bennett focus on his failures in the education system, and not interfere in things that require experience, responsibility and good judgment,” the party said.

Meanwhile in Gaza Saturday, funerals were held for the seven Palestinians killed in the previous day’s violence.

The ministry identified three of the dead as Nasser Mosabih, 12, Mohammed al-Houm, 14, and Iyad Al-Shaar, 18, and said they were shot. The other four were in their twenties.

The IDF said about 20,000 Palestinians took part in violent protests, spread out among a few locations along the Gaza security fence.

In two cases, IAF aircraft carried out strikes against grenade-throwers, the army said, noting there were no injuries to IDF forces.

Mourners carry the body of Mohammed al-Houm, 14, who was killed during a violent protest along the Israel-Gaza border, during his funeral in the Bureij refugee camp, in central Gaza on September 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Anas BABA)

One of the strikes was on a Hamas post, the army said.

IDF troops also responded with tear gas and other non-lethal riot dispersal means as well as live fire “in accordance with the rules of engagement,” the army said.

Palestinians also launched several fire balloons into Israel, causing at least 16 blazes near Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services said. Firefighters were working to extinguish them.

The UN called Saturday for Israel and Hamas to rein in the violence.

“I am deeply saddened by reports that seven Palestinians, including two children, were killed, and hundreds of others injured, by Israeli forces during demonstrations in the Gaza Strip yesterday (Friday),” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Jamie McGoldrick, said in a statement. “I call on Israel, Hamas and all other actors with the ability to influence the situation, to take action now to prevent further deterioration and loss of life.”

The riots have increased in recent weeks, going from a weekly event to near-nightly protests since Hamas halted indirect talks with Israel aimed at a ceasefire. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has also worsened and reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority have broken down.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and actively calls for Israel’s destruction, has increased the pace of rioting and demonstrations against Israel, and created new units tasked with sustaining tensions along the border fence including during nighttime and early morning hours.

Almost every evening, thousands of Gazans now gather for violent demonstrations at the Erez crossing and elsewhere, as part of Hamas’s attempts to signal to Israel that it wants an economic solution to the Gaza Strip’s woes.

The Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah have not borne fruit at this stage, and the possibility of a long-term ceasefire with Israel has apparently stalled, Thursday’s analysis by The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff said. The economic situation has once again reached an unprecedented low, stoking fury among Gazans that is being directed against Israel, the PA, Hamas, and even Egypt.

On Friday, the Haaretz daily quoted Israeli security sources as saying that Hamas is preparing for war, bolstering its forces significantly over the past few weeks.

That assessment is not new, IDF sources told Haaretz, having warned repeatedly that the situation is more likely to escalate than to calm down. However, recently the army noted that the terror group appears to actively be readying itself for a limited conflict with Israel. It is only a question of when Hamas will decide to go to war, the paper said.

Israeli officials believe there are two main causes pushing Hamas toward military escalation, the newspaper report said — the failed reconciliation talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, which controls the West Bank and has maintained a chokehold on Gaza’s finances in a bid to pressure Hamas to cede control of the territory; and the ongoing humanitarian crisis of the enclave under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, made worse in recent months by the US slashing its aid to the PA and its funding for UNRWA, the UN body responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, which funds schools and major relief projects in the Strip.

A Palestinian woman walks past a closed health center that run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) during a strike of all UNRWA institutions in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 24, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The surge of violence in Gaza began in March with a series of protests along the border that were dubbed the “March of Return.” The clashes have included regular rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as shooting and IED attacks aimed at IDF soldiers and attempts to breach the border fence.

Gaza protesters have also launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed livestock. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials. Some balloons have carried improvised explosive devices.

Israeli fire has killed at least 140 Palestinians during the protests since late March, according to AP figures. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.

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