Bennett rejects potential truce deal with Hamas as ‘reward for terrorists’

Jewish Home leader says his party will oppose any long-term ceasefire accord, warns it harms Israel’s deterrence; defense minister dismisses ’empty slogans’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Education Minister Naftali Bennett at farewell ceremony for Issac Herzog at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on July 18, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett at farewell ceremony for Issac Herzog at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on July 18, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key coalition ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday harshly criticized any deal for a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, adding that ministers in his party will oppose it.

An Israeli official told the Los Angeles Times Monday night that a deal with the terror group that rules the Strip is “virtually done.”

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett’s office said: “In light of the agreement being forged between Israel and Hamas, (Bennett) announced tonight that the Jewish Home Party would oppose an agreement based on a temporary calm.”

Bennett also lambasted Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s earlier announcement that Israel would reopen a major goods crossing into Gaza and extend the Strip’s permitted fishing zone on Wednesday should the calm hold.

“Liberman’s gestures to Hamas are a mistake,” Bennett said, adding that his party would “oppose an agreement based on a temporary calm, which would allow Hamas to rearm and regroup for the next round of terror.

“This ‘quiet’ will give Hamas total immunity to replenish tens of thousands of rockets threatening all parts of the country, and allow it to open war against Israel whenever it is most convenient to them,” he said. “This will ultimately lead to battles on two highly dangerous fronts, in the north and in the south, at a time determined by the enemy and on its terms.

“After 130 days under attack and rocket fire, we must not reward the terrorists without the return of our captives and our fallen soldiers,” Bennett charged. “The terrorists will learn that terror pays, and Israel’s deterrence will be harmed.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, are believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza along with the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, killed during the 2014 Gaza war.

Bennett’s comments were swiftly condemned by Liberman’s party, which called the remarks “empty slogans.”

Yisrael Beytenu party said: “As always, Minister Bennett rushes to the press with empty slogans which are no more than petty politics at the expense of the IDF and the security establishment.”

Taking a jab at the education minister, the statement added that “it would be better for him to concern himself with the rising violence at schools.”

The defense minister said the planned easing of restrictions in Gaza was meant to be a sign to Palestinians in the Strip that “maintaining the quiet is first and foremost in the interest of Gaza residents.”

The decision was announced following a meeting between Liberman and a number of senior defense officials on Tuesday afternoon.

Bennett’s comments were also condemned by the leader of the left-wing opposition party Meretz, who accused him of seeking to satisfy “populists and provocateurs.”

“According to Bennett’s logic, every reality that doesn’t include wars and blood being spilled is against his interest,” Tamar Zandberg said.

Leader of the Meretz party MK Tamar Zandberg attends during a joint Knesset and Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset, July 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When declaring his decision, Liberman said that “it was decided that if the relative quiet along the Gaza border that began this week continues until tomorrow morning, the Kerem Shalom Crossing will reopen at 9 a.m. tomorrow and the fishing zone will be extended back to nine nautical miles [10.4 miles] from the coast,” from the current six.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Kamil Abu Rokon, a representative from the Shin Bet security service, and other senior defense officials took part in the meeting, Liberman’s office said.

Further economic incentives may be considered in the coming days if there is no renewal of violence, specifically the launching of incendiary airborne devices from Gaza toward Israeli territory. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Israeli and Hamas officials have reportedly been engaged in intensive efforts via Egypt and the UN in recent weeks to reach a long-term deal to return calm to the restive border region in exchange for easing restrictions on the Strip. Last week a Hamas official predicted a truce would be inked by the end of the month.

Jerusalem has officially been mum on the talks with Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group which seized control of the Strip in 2007 and seeks to destroy Israel.

Israeli officials have reportedly sought to include the return of civilian captives and remains of soldiers being held in Gaza as part of the deal, but Hamas is said to be seeking to leave that issue out of a potential truce and only commit to discussing it in a second round of talks.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, speaks with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, right, and other senior military officers during a visit to the Gaza Division on August 13, 2018. (Shahar Levi/Defense Ministry)

Israel closed the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the main goods crossing into the beleaguered Palestinian enclave, on July 9 to everything but food and medical equipment, following weeks of violence along the border, including arson attacks.

Israel also severely restricted the Gaza fishing zone, a significant source of revenue for the beleaguered enclave, forcing Palestinian fisherman to remain within three nautical miles (3.5 miles) of the coast.

Fuel and gasoline shipments into the Strip have been allowed at some points and frozen at others, depending upon the intensity of attacks from the Strip.

This week, Israeli authorities noted a significant drop in incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Palestinian enclave.

Senior Israel officials maintain the country has not agreed to the ceasefire that Hamas announced late Thursday and said went into effect at midnight. Hamas, a terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, claims the deal was mediated by Egypt and other regional players.

The apparent truce came after two days of spiraling violence that saw some of the heaviest exchanges of fire between Israel and the Gaza terrorist organization since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. During the flare up, Hamas fired over 150 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, which responded with about the same number of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

Judah Ari Gross, AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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