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As tensions rise, hints Israel would let in Gaza workers

Gantz: Nasrallah is our biggest foe to the north, but Lebanon’s biggest problem

Reflecting on Beirut blast, defense minister says fighting Hezbollah is complicated by its storage of weapons in civilian areas, says IDF to keep working to block Iran in Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Blue and White Party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a party faction meeting in the Knesset, June 29, 2020. (Noam Moshkovitz/Blue and White)
Blue and White Party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a party faction meeting in the Knesset, June 29, 2020. (Noam Moshkovitz/Blue and White)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday warned that Israel’s next war against Hezbollah would be more difficult to fight, in light of the terror group’s practice of storing weapons in civilian areas, as was understood from the devastating blast in the Beirut port last week that was apparently caused by improperly stored explosive material.

“We saw the disaster the occurred in Lebanon. Imagine to yourselves if this had been multiplied by Hezbollah’s caches of weapons, which are in every Lebanese city and village,” Gantz told the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Last Wednesday’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port killed over 200 people, injured thousands and left nearly a third of a million people homeless.

Though a full investigation into the incident is ongoing, initial reports from Lebanon indicate the main explosion was triggered by a smaller fire and blast that caused some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to detonate, an amount more than 1,000 times greater than that used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (STR / AFP)

The defense minister said Hezbollah’s practice of keeping weapons in civilian homes presented a risk to Lebanese citizens and a challenge to the Israel Defense Forces, which see the terror group as its primary military foe in the region.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech in the aftermath of a deadly explosion in Beirut, on Friday August 7, 2020 (al-Manar screenshot)

“While [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is our biggest enemy to the north, he is the biggest problem for Lebanon in Lebanon,” Gantz said.

“In Lebanon, in a house, there is a guest room and a missile room — in the same house! When that missile explodes, the guest room doesn’t stay whole, and the Lebanese civilian society will pay dearly. As a security network, we are fighting enemies that keep weapons and operate in civilian surroundings. If we don’t have a choice but to fight, it will have dire consequences,” the minister said.

Gantz made his remarks at the opening of a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting about the Shin Bet security service’s controversial ongoing tracking of Israeli citizens’ movements through their cellphone location and other digital data, as part of the government’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The discussion about extending the monitoring program was closed to the public.

Illustrative: A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli airstrike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip early on August 3, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In his speech, the defense minister also hinted about the possibility of allowing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to work in Israel, amid escalating tensions between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group. Recent days have seen an uptick in violence from the enclave, including a rocket attack last week, the daily launchings of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices, and a sniper attack on Sunday.

“We have no interests in Gaza other than total calm and the returning of the boys,” Gantz said, referring to the remains of two IDF soldiers and two living Israeli civilians being held by Hamas in Gaza.

“We would be happy to see Gaza blossom, I would be happy to see workers coming out of the Gaza Strip. This can happen under one condition — that the boys are returned home. When this happens, we can open the Gaza Strip,” he said.

In the past, Shin Bet opposition has put the kibosh on proposals to allow Gazans to work in Israel, out of concerns that such movement would be used by terror groups in the Strip to carry out attacks inside Israel, to transfer weapons and to pass messages between terrorist operatives in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank.

Syrian Air defenses respond to alleged Israeli missiles targeting south of the capital Damascus, on July 20, 2020. (AFP)

Gantz also said Israel was continuing to fight Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and was working to counter its nuclear program.

“Iran continues to seek nuclear [weapons], Iran continues to upset the region. Iran has thousands of proxies in Syria, in Yemen, in African countries. It has cells in Europe and other countries around the world. We can’t and must not ignore this. We must not ignore its nuclear efforts and its… negative impact on the Middle East,” he said.

“This continued pressure on Iran and the continued [arms] embargo on Iran is very important. Iran is interested in opening a terror franchise in Syria, and we must prevent the opening of this franchise as much as possible. We are operating in Syria and in other places around the region all the time and with all kinds of methods, and we will continue to do so,” Gantz said.

Touching on an ongoing political rift between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the country’s budget, Gantz said the government needed to approve defense funding in order to allow the Israel Defense Forces to implement its multi-year Momentum Plan, which is meant to dictate the military’s actions for the next five years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/ Flash90)

Gantz has demanded the government pass a two-year budget — as was agreed in the coalition agreement between his party and Netanyahu’s Likud — while the prime minister is calling for a one-year budget, nominally due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, though most analysts in Israel see this as a political ploy to potentially avoid having to give Gantz the premiership next year.

“We must allow the Momentum multi-year plan to be carried out. Failing to approve the IDF’s multi-year plan would be an atrocious inefficiency,” Gantz said.

Gantz also criticized the absence of a true universal draft in Israel. In recent years, the country’s conscription rate has hovered around 50 percent, with Arab Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Israelis and — generally — religious female Israelis not enlisting in the military, along with a small, but not insignificant, number of men exempted due to medical and socioeconomic circumstances.

“In practice, roughly half of the Israeli population serves. This is no longer acceptable, and we must have a wide reform of three issues — addressing the shortening of military service in order to fix the [manpower] hole that the IDF has; addressing the draft law, as required by the High Court of Justice; and — most importantly — reforming military service, changing it from military service to national and state service,” he said.

Gantz was referring to a recent change in mandatory military service from 36 months for men, as it was until 2015, to 32 months, as it was from 2015 to last month, and now to 30 months, which the IDF has warned will have a deep, negative impact on its human resources.

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90/File)

The defense minister said that while he still considered military service to be of the utmost importance, he also believed that Israelis could help the country by serving as firefighters, police officers and other community assistance institutions.

Israel’s draft law has been a bone of contention for Israeli politicians for nearly a decade, once the High Court of Justice ruled that an earlier law that effectively gave a blanket exemption to all ultra-Orthodox men from having to serve in the military was unfair and illegal. Since then, multiple government coalitions have sought to create a new piece of legislation that would meet the court’s equality requirements while also maintaining the status quo of exemptions for the country’s ultra-Orthodox population.

“I hope that we will pass a draft law, as we agreed with our coalition partners,” Gantz said, hinting at his current tiff with Netanyahu. “If there’s no Knesset and no government, there won’t be a draft law. It would be a waste to miss the opportunity before us.”

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