Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said Wednesday he would consider reintroducing the policy of assassinating Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip if his centrist party forms the next Israeli government.
In a campaign speech, Gantz criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his handling of the recent uptick in violence in and around the Palestinian enclave.
“In the 3.5 years after [Operation] Protective Edge there was complete calm. No rockets, balloons or kites,” Gantz said, referring to the Gaza war he commanded as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces in 2014.
“When we form the government we’ll change this tired policy and implement a very firm and tough one,” he said.
Though he vowed to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Gantz warned he would respond harshly to any attacks by armed Palestinian groups.
“If they attack us or violate our sovereignty, we’ll implement a tough policy,” Gantz said. “If necessary, we will return to a policy of targeted killings.”
Israel began a wave of assassinations against Hamas and other terrorist leaders in the early part of the past decade. The tactic, which Israel says is a preventive measure against terror attacks, drew harsh backlash from rights groups and foreign governments over civilian casualties in the killings.
Gantz made the remarks amid a public spat with New Right party leader Naftali Bennett, who blasted the former army chief’s record on Gaza.
“Gantz is the wet dream of Hamas members, and if Hamas had the right to vote, they would vote for Benny Gantz, the general of hesitation,” said Bennett, the education minister, who is seeking to become Israel’s next defense chief.
Bennett has repeatedly charged that Gantz and his party ally Moshe Ya’alon, who was defense minister in 2014, endangered the lives of Israeli soldiers with their strategy during the Gaza war. His comment Wednesday referred to a 2015 speech by Gantz in which he described taking risks to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties during the fighting.
Netanyahu has sought to portray Gantz, his main election rival, as a candidate who would usher in a “weak” leftist government with the support of the Knesset’s Arab parties, which are seen by many on the right as disloyal to the Jewish state.
In videos uploaded to his social media accounts, Netanyahu frequently claims Blue and White will forge alliances with Arab parties in a bid to oust him from power and will make significant concessions to the Palestinians.
In a meeting with European Union officials earlier on Wednesday, Gantz avoided endorsing a Palestinian state outright, but said both peoples “are here to stay” and that an arrangement needed to be found.
He expressed similar views to Netanyahu regarding Iran, saying he “won’t rule out other options” if diplomacy fails to stop its nuclear ambitions.
Regarding Hamas, Gantz told the EU envoys that Gaza’s rulers were ultimately responsible for the economic hardships in the Strip.
“Hamas is a gang holding two million people hostage,” he said. “Do you think if they have a maritime port, all they import will be orange juice? That they want economic development? The responsibility for the future of Gaza is in the hands of Hamas, not Israel.”
Although recent polls have indicated that Gantz’s centrist slate will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, it is still likely to struggle to cobble together a majority coalition of 61 out of 120 Knesset seats. Netanyahu, leading the ruling party, may be better positioned to form a government but would need to rely on various smaller right-wing parties, giving them additional clout in coalition talks.