Firing back at critics, PM says Israel struck Hamas 40 times recently

Netanyahu’s comments come after Labor leader Avi Gabbay slams government’s failure to halt Gaza rocket fire

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on December 31, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on December 31, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON)

Responding to criticism from opposition leaders over the government’s failure to stem rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told cabinet ministers Sunday that Israeli warplanes have struck Hamas targets some 40 times in recent weeks.

“Israel views Hamas as responsible for all fire toward us from the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said in comments delivered before the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

“In the few weeks that have passed since we destroyed the terror tunnel that extended into our territory, the IDF has struck about 40 Hamas targets, including another strike by the air force last night,” the prime minister added.

“All those who tut-tut in the media, people who have never borne the weight of responsibility for Israel’s security for a single minute, and also never made a single security decision — I suggest they calm down. The defense minister and myself, together with the [IDF] chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet and the heads of the security services, are leading a determined and responsible policy that is supported by this government, a policy that has made Israel into a quieter and safer place in recent years than at any other time in decades.”

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay had slammed Netanyahu Saturday night for his handling of the sporadic rocket fire from the Strip, saying the prime minister was silent on the issue because his government had failed to deal decisively with it.

Israeli take cover during a rocket attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark a birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

“For three weeks they have been firing rockets from Gaza and the prime minister is silent,” said Gabbay, speaking at a cultural event in the central town of Shoham. “Why? Because it is a failure, and the prime minister is a good campaigner who does not want to be associated with failure.”

Gabbay has in recent weeks called on Netanyahu to take stronger action on Gaza, accusing him of being weak.”

However, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, a fierce Netanyahu critic, urged caution, saying the next round of conflict with Hamas should be delayed as long as possible.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon speaks during a rally against corruption in government, at Zion Square in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90

“As long as we can create a decent security situation, we need to do so,” he said, speaking at a similar event at Kibbutz Yagur. “As long as Hamas is dealing with [rocket-launching cells], we need to let them continue to do so.”

According to Israeli assessments, the rockets are not being launched by Hamas itself, which controls the Gaza Strip, but by other terrorist organizations there. However, in a change from the past, analysts have noted that Hamas has recently grown unwilling or unable to clamp down on those groups.

The group has called for a new intifada and vowed to liberate Jerusalem following US President Donald Trump’s December 6 declaration that Jerusalem is the Israeli capital.

This month saw two weeks of near-daily rocket launches, the largest concentration of such attacks from the Strip since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.

The criticism of Netanyahu came a day after terrorists in Gaza fired three rockets into Israel that appear to deliberately coincide with a ceremony marking what would have been the 24th birthday of an IDF soldier who was killed in 2014 and whose remains are held by Hamas.

Zehava Shaul, whose son Oron’s remains are being held by the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza, is led away from a ceremony in his honor after rockets are launched at Israel from the coastal enclave on December 29, 2017. (Screen capture)

A military official could not say that it was definitively the case, as the army was still investigating the issue, but said it “absolutely could be,” noting the uncommon timing of the attack.

In general, terrorist groups fire their rockets under the cover of darkness, rather than in broad daylight, as in Friday’s launches.

Three rockets were fired at the Sha’ar Hanegev and Sdot Hanegev regions of southern Israel on Friday afternoon. Two of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, while the third struck near a building in a community in the area, causing damage.

The military censor did not allow the exact location of the strike to be published, as it could assist terrorist groups in fine-tuning their targeting for future attacks.

The launches were directed toward the area where the ceremony was being held, at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, overlooking the place where Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul was killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

The time and location of the event were publicized ahead of time.

Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin, a former head of a regional council just outside Gaza who was at the ceremony, filmed the event for a Facebook Live video. The ceremony was attended by dozens of people, including a number of politicians, Gabbay among them.

The barrage came just after a musical performance, setting off loudspeakers in the area, which blared, “Code Red. Code Red,” the term for an incoming rocket attack. Far from bomb shelters, Jelin and the other members of the audience took cover on the grass, lying on the ground with their hands over their heads.

Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose death in Gaza on July 20, 2014 was formally confirmed by the IDF on July 25, 2014 (Courtesy)

In the video, Oron Shaul’s clearly distraught mother Zehava could be seen being escorted away.

The loud blasts of the rockets being intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system could be heard in the video, though they could not be seen because of heavy cloud cover.

In a statement, Gabbay, who attended the event, said he was “filled with pride” that the ceremony went forward despite the attack. Shortly after the rocket barrage, the Israel Defense Forces retaliated by attacking two Hamas positions with tank fire and air strikes. The rocket attack was the first such incident since December 18. There were no reports of casualties.

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