Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival in the upcoming elections, assailed the premier on Thursday for his lack of a firm response to Gaza terror groups following a rocket launch at southern Israel and a wave of Palestinian arson attacks, as a Hamas official threatened a further escalation.
Israeli aircraft hit a Hamas underground facility in Gaza overnight, after the rocket was shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system in the first such attack since a vicious two-day battle between Israel and terror groups in the coastal enclave early last month.
The incoming projectile triggered sirens in the community of Nirim in the Eshkol region, east of Gaza, at approximately 12:15 a.m. on Thursday. Residents of the area reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the rocket caused no injuries or damage.
“Netanyahu is only strong with words,” Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, said in a statement. “The continued rocket fire by Hamas is evidence that we have lost our deterrence.
“Only exacting an immediate heavy price from Hamas will clarify that Israel doesn’t only talk, but also uses force.”
Meanwhile, a senior Hamas official was said to threaten that the situation would “escalate” if Israel doesn’t fully implement an unofficial ceasefire deal, which Jerusalem has accused Palestinian terror groups of breaching.
The comment was referring to an Israeli announcement on Wednesday that it was imposing a full naval closure of the Gaza Strip, not allowing local fisherman access to the sea, in response to the wave of arson and explosive attacks from the coastal enclave throughout the day.
At least six fires in southern Israel on Wednesday were blamed on incendiary balloons launched from the Strip, and another balloon with a bomb attached to it exploded over an Israeli town. There were no reports of injuries. The arson attacks caused significant damage to area farmland.
The arson attacks appear to be a violation of an unofficial ceasefire reached in early May between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers that ended two days of intense fighting between the Israeli military and Palestinian terror groups.
According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, last month’s agreement includes a Hamas obligation to halt violent incidents along the border fence, maintaining a buffer zone 300 meters from the border; an end to the launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli communities and nighttime clashes between Gazans and security forces; and an end to flotillas trying to break through the maritime border between Gaza and Israel.
In return, Israel expanded the fishing zone and agreed to enable United Nations cash-for-work programs, allow medicine and other civil aid to enter the Strip, and open negotiations on matters relating to electricity, crossings, healthcare, and funds.
“The situation will gradually escalate” if the deal is violated, the unnamed Hamas official was quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster. “If the agreement is implemented, the situation will calm down.”
“We are not trying to undermine what we have achieved, but groups in Gaza aren’t feeling like Israel has been honoring the agreement,” the official added.
“It is only delaying and delaying and doesn’t want to carry out the understandings regarding getting the [Qatari] money into Gaza, expanding the fishing zone and allowing dual-purpose materials into the Strip.”
In contrast, Daoud Shehab, a spokesperson for the Islamic Jihad terror group, said Thursday that his movement was “determined to implement the ceasefire understandings,” despite “the occupation’s efforts to block their implementation.”
Meanwhile, the head of Gaza’s fishermen union, Nizar Ayyash, spoke to several Israeli news outlets on Thursday morning to denounce the full naval closure as “collective punishment.”
“This is a joke,” Ayyash said. “What is the connection between those who launch incendiary balloons and fishermen at sea? If someone is giving you trouble, you punish also those who have no connection to him? This is collective punishment.”
He added that Israel’s policy of linking the fishing zone with the security situation was disrupting a relatively stable Gazan industry, causing millions of shekels in damage for every day of closure, and causing “despair” among the fishermen. But he said that wouldn’t cause his union to pressure Hamas to make concessions, saying he would not intervene in what he said was the leadership’s responsibility.
Judah Ari Gross and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.