New Right MK Naftali Bennett officially took up the post of defense minister Tuesday, entering the position as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip launched salvos of rocket fire toward Israel following the targeted killing of one of its top commanders.
Shortly after taking office, Bennett, on the advice of defense officials, declared a “special situation” in the home front for communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Strip.
A “special situation” is a legal term used in times of emergency, granting authorities greater jurisdiction over the civilian population in order to streamline efforts to safeguard the population. It is valid for 48 hours unless extended by cabinet ministers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as defense minister since Avigdor Liberman’s resignation late last year, passed the torch to Bennett during a late-morning security assessment with IDF Chief Aviv Kohavi at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the military secretaries to the prime minister and defense minister also participated in the meeting.
The cabinet had approved Bennett’s appointment as interim defense minister on Sunday. Netanyahu had agreed to the appointment as part of a deal that saw Likud and New Right merge their factions in the Knesset.
Over the weekend, members of Netanyahu’s party said the appointment was a strategic move aimed at ensuring continued right-wing support for the prime minister in the ongoing coalition talks.
Bennett found himself thrust directly into the deep end of the pool on Tuesday as Israel was pounded with rockets from Gaza following the Israeli elimination of Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata in the early morning.
The New Right MK has in the past fiercely criticized Netanyahu’s Gaza policies as insufficiently forceful.
The army said it was prepared for several days of fighting in the south. Sirens wailed in southern and central Israel on Tuesday as over 160 rockets were fired by Islamic Jihad, the majority of them at the Israeli communities around Gaza and a smaller number at major cities in central Israel throughout the morning.
One man was lightly injured by a rocket attack that struck a highway near the town of Gan Yavne. An eight-year-old girl was seriously hurt in Holon after suffering heart arrhythmia. She was rushed to a hospital and her condition was said to be improving.
Some 15 people were injured while running to shelters. Another 13 were treated for anxiety.
The projectiles also caused damage in several instances, hitting a factory and homes in communities of the Gaza periphery as well as streets in the cities of Ashdod and Rishon Lezion.
Schools were closed in southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
At least 60 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Most of the rockets from Gaza fell on open ground away from populated areas.
Israel largely refrained from retaliating for the first six hours of the rocket attacks but on Tuesday afternoon began carrying out strikes on Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip.
Notably, the Israeli military did not say it would be conducting strikes against the Hamas terror group, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip. In general, the IDF’s modus operandi has been to attack Hamas targets in response to any violence emanating from the Strip, as it considers the terror group to be the sovereign of the enclave.
Judah Ari Gross and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.