2 Gaza border mayors boycott meeting with PM, accuse him of ignoring region
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2 Gaza border mayors boycott meeting with PM, accuse him of ignoring region

After speaking with IDF officers, Netanyahu says Israel hoping for calm in south but prepared for military action

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

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon meet with council heads from the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip on July 3, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon meet with council heads from the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip on July 3, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry)

The heads of two regional councils on the Gaza border wracked in recent months by regular arson and rocket attacks boycotted a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top political and defense officials Wednesday, accusing the government of ignoring the security situation in the Israeli communities closest to the Palestinian enclave.

Speaking after the meeting of his high-level security cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was hoping for calm to return to the region, but that he had nevertheless ordered the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the possibility of a military operation in the Strip.

Following the security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu held his session with local government officials from southern Israel in the IDF Gaza Division headquarters, near Kibbutz Re’im, to discuss the security situation with Gaza and other issues affecting the region.

Representatives from other cities and towns in southern Israel attended the gathering, including the mayor of Ashkelon and the heads of the Hof Ashkelon, Merhavim and Bnei Shimon regional councils. These areas have been targeted by rocket strikes from Gaza, but have largely been spared the regular arson attacks faced by the Eshkol and Sha’ar Hanegev regions.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat also attended the meeting, along with senior IDF officers.

The head of the Eshkol region, Gadi Yarkoni, and the head of the Sh’ar Hanegev region, Ofir Libstein, announced in a joint statement that they would not attend the meeting in protest of the decision to include all southern municipalities, and not just those who have borne the brunt of the attacks from the Gaza Strip over the past year and a half.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon meet with council heads from the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip on July 3, 2019 (Ariel Hermoni / Ministry of Defense)

“We respect our colleagues, the heads of regions in the south, they too are dealing with complex emergency situations, but we are sure that without a doubt the challenges, the needs and the reality facing the Gaza periphery is fundamentally different from the other regions,” Yarkoni and Libstein said.

The areas of Ashkelon, Hof Ashkelon, Merhavim and Bnei Shimon have been targeted by rocket strikes from Gaza over the past year, but have largely been spared the regular arson attacks faced by the Eshkol and Sha’ar Hanegev regions.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, center, the head of the Southern Gaza Brigade, Col. Kobi Heller,left, and the head of the local regional council, Gadi Yarkoni, right, meet near the Kerem Shalom Crossing on January 14, 2018, where an alleged Hamas attack tunnel was discovered and destroyed by the military the day before. (Israel Defense Forces)

The pair said they believed the government was not actually interested in understanding the situation in the Gaza border area.

“We cannot accept this and so we will not take part,” they wrote.

Yarkoni and Libstein called for the government to hold another meeting solely with the local governments in the Gaza periphery.

Netanyahu said in response that boycotting the event was an odd move for a group that often complains of being ignored.

“I am sorry that some regional council heads who always say that they’re not being listened to decided to leave when we specifically came to listen to them. But we will do what is needed for everyone,” the prime minister said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony to honor outstanding IDF Reserve Units, July 1, 2019 (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)

The meeting was attended by  Netanyahu and the cabinet also met with the heads of the IDF Southern Command and the Gaza Division.

“Our policy is clear: We want to bring back calm, but at the same time, we are preparing for a large-scale military operation, if necessary. These are my orders for the army,” the prime minister said.

The meeting came less than a week after Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group reached a new ceasefire agreement, which was aimed at halting the launch of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Strip into southern Israel and reining in the general level of violence along the border, in exchange for a number of economic concessions.

Since this went into effect last Friday, there has been a marked drop in the number of airborne arson attacks, though they have not stopped completely.

Palestinians prepare arson balloons near the city of Jabalia in the Gaza Strip, June 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s government has faced considerable criticism from southern residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle for what they say is a failure to adequately respond to ongoing violence by Hamas and other terror groups from the Gaza Strip, either militarily or via a long-term truce.

Since violence along the border began picking up last March, residents of the Gaza periphery have also held a number of protests throughout the country in response to what they see as government inaction in the face of terrorism.

Earlier this week, the prime minister defended his record, dismissing the complaints by political rivals as insincere, partisan attacks.

“I’m not impressed by the propaganda of the ‘experts.’ Many of them give us advice they themselves did not implement when they were on duty,” Netanyahu said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, referring to statements made by politicians who had formerly served as defense and army chiefs.

“And make no mistake, they will also be the first to criticize us after we embark on a large-scale military operation, which we may be forced to do. So what guides me is only one thing — the security of the State of Israel,” the prime minister said.

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