Labor chief Gabbay says Netanyahu is ‘weak’ in fighting Hamas

Amid surge in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, opposition leaders call for more forceful response

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay leads the faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay leads the faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Opposition leaders on Monday took aim at the government’s response to an increase in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, with Labor chairman Avi Gabbay on Monday accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “weakness” and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid calling for a more forceful Israeli response to Hamas.

The Yesh Atid leader also castigated as “moral cowardice” the government response to a court decision on withholding the bodies of Palestinian terrorists.

“The prime minister is weak against Hamas,” said Gabbay at the weekly Zionist Union faction meeting in the Knesset. “For two weeks, they’ve been firing on our citizens and we don’t hear him.”

The Labor chairman’s criticism came hours after the IDF carried out a series of airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza overnight Sunday-Monday, the army said, in retaliation for a volley of rockets fired at Israel from the Palestinian enclave.

The retaliation came amid a sharp rise in the number of rocket attacks on Israel from the Strip over the past two weeks, including a rocket that caused damage to an empty kindergarten in Sderot over a week ago. A number of the rockets have been intercepted by the Iron Dome system, indicating they had been heading for populated areas.

This has been the largest incidence of rocket fire from the Strip since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. According to Israeli assessments, these rockets are not being launched by Hamas, but by other terrorist groups in the Strip. However, analysts have noted that Hamas is either unwilling or unable to clamp down on the groups. Israel holds the Gaza-based terrorist groups responsible for all rocket fire emanating from the Strip.

“When Hamas sees that the prime minister does not comment, what is it supposed to understand?” said Gabbay. “That we accept the situation. In 2009, when he was in the opposition, Netanyahu would say he would ‘crush’ Hamas.”

“And it isn’t as if the prime minister doesn’t have time,” derided Gabbay, who has set his sights on replacing Netanyahu in the next election. “Yesterday, we heard him address bitcoin at length. But about the hundreds of thousands of Israelis under fire — that he doesn’t have time to address.”

Gabbay also lambasted Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, ridiculing both his military credentials and his assessment that the rocket fire was a result of fights between various Palestinian factions in the Strip.

Liberman, touring the southern city of Sderot last week, urged Israelis to “relax,” as Hamas was still cowed by the 2014 Gaza war and feared another round of fighting with Israel.

“The recent launches from Gaza at Sderot have nothing to do with Israeli deterrence, but [are a result of] internal Palestinian struggles between different groups and factions,” Liberman said.

“We need a defense minister and not a military pundit,” Gabbay said on Monday. “When we replace the government, I pledge, the defense minister will be a professional who is most suited for the job.”

At the Yesh Atid faction meeting, Lapid, too, indicated he favored a stronger military response to Hamas.

“The State of Israel cannot allow itself, time after time, to set red lines for our enemies and then not stand up to them,” said Lapid. “This is what happened with regard to the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. This is what is happening now with Gaza. We are a regional power; it cannot be that Hamas provokes us without [being met with] a sharp response.”

Lapid also came down on the security cabinet for its response to a High Court of Justice ultimatum last week to either pass a law regulating the holding of Palestinian terrorists’ bodies as bargaining chips or hand them over to their families.

The high-level cabinet was reportedly hoping to avoid new legislation and seek another hearing on the issue, at the recommendation of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

“The [security] cabinet decision on holding terrorists’ bodies is a combination of moral cowardice and operational irresponsibility,” said Lapid. “Instead of just dropping the case again in the High Court[‘s lap], the government should just do its job and submit legislation.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lapid said if the proposed legislation was “responsible,” his party would support it.

“They would simply rather fight the Israeli court rather than Islamic terrorism,” he said of the government.

Also censuring the government was Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, who accused Netanyahu and Liberman of throwing their support behind controversial legislation — namely, the so-called Jewish state bill and a proposal to allow the death penalty for terrorists — to compensate for their security “failures.”

“When Netanyahu and Liberman fail in security they hide behind nationalism and populism,” she said.

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