Liberman signals Trump didn’t consult with Israel on Syria withdrawal

Amid Gaza protests, defense minister also claims everyone in the Strip ‘is affiliated with Hamas’

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday said US President Donald Trump did not ask for Israel’s view before announcing his planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria, adding that the Jewish state will likely have to operate “alone” against its various enemies.

He also slammed international criticism of the killing of nine Palestinians during Friday’s clashes on the Gaza border, branding it “hypocrisy” and claiming there were “no innocent people in Gaza.” He later clarified that his use of the Hebrew word tamim was intended to mean not “innocent,” but “naive.”

“President Trump didn’t ask me,” Liberman said when asked during an interview with Israel Radio about the US plan to leave Syria, despite Israeli fears of Iranian-backed terror groups encroaching on its northern border.”I wouldn’t presume to give advice that hasn’t been requested from me.”

The interviewer then referred to reports that a phone call last week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump “grew tense” and that the Israeli prime minister protested Washington’s intention to withdraw from Syria at this time, when the axis of Iran, Russia and Turkey is gaining traction in the embattled country.

“I always operate on the assumption that at the end of the day, Israel has to deal alone with both the northern threat and the southern threat,” Liberman answered, referring as well to simmering tensions in the Gaza Strip in Israel’s south.

“I very much appreciate the United States; it is our only and main strategic partner,” he added. “But we also understand that the US has its own considerations.”

Trump has given no formal order to pull out the 2,000 US troops currently in Syria, nor offered a public timetable, other than to say the United States will pull out just as soon as the last remaining IS fighters can be vanquished. But Trump has signaled to his advisers that ideally, he wants all troops out within six months, three US officials told The Associated Press — a finale that would come shortly before the US midterm elections.

In his haste to withdraw from Syria, Trump stands alone. The Pentagon, the State Department and CIA are all deeply concerned about the potential ramifications if the US leaves behind a power vacuum in Syria, as are Israel, Arab leaders and other nations in the US-led coalition that has fought IS in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Palestinian men run for cover from tears gas canisters at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest, east of Gaza City in the Gaza strip, on April 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The defense minister on Sunday also attacked the international community’s condemnation of Israel’s response to the violent Gaza protests, saying much higher death tolls in neighboring countries drew little dismay.

“This weekend hundreds of people were killed in Syria, including dozens of women and children, and I haven’t yet heard the UN secretary general, we didn’t see the Security Council or the Arab League convene, so we need to understand in what environment we are living. Dozens, maybe hundreds were also killed in Yemen, that doesn’t interest anyone at all. But when Israel defends itself we immediately see the spree of hypocrisy and the parade of foolishness,” he said.

“It has to be understood that there are no innocent people in Gaza,” Liberman added. “Everyone is affiliated with Hamas, they are all paid by Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are operatives of its military wing.”

A statement from the Defense Ministry later on Sunday said: “The defense minister in the interview intended to the word tamim (naive). Any other translation is mistaken.”

Some 20,000 Gazans participated in Friday’s second successive Hamas-backed “March of Return” at the Gaza border. The army said protesters burned tires and threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at Israeli soldiers. Several attempts were made to breach the border fence. Soldiers responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live fire. Palestinians said nine Gazans were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the clashes.

Palestinian journalists carry a portrait of journalist Yasser Murtaja, during his funeral in Gaza City on April 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

On Saturday, Liberman indicated Palestinian photo-journalist Yasser Murtaja who was killed during Friday’s clashes had placed his life in danger by operating a drone above Israeli soldiers.

“I don’t know who is or isn’t a photographer. Anyone who operates drones above IDF soldiers needs to understand he’s putting himself in danger,” he said.

Murtaja was known to use camera drones to capture photographs, and Israel Radio, citing unnamed sources in Gaza, reported that he was doing so when he was shot Friday. Several Palestinian journalists denied the claim to Reuters.

Liberman added on Saturday: “We’ve seen dozens of cases where Hamas terrorists used ambulances, dressed up as Red Crescent personnel and disguised themselves as journalists. We won’t take any chances.”

Netanyahu has said he salutes “the soldiers of the IDF who keep us safe… from those who pretend to speak of human rights, while holding a Nazi flag. Here is the naked truth. They speak of human rights, but they really want to crush the Jewish state. We won’t let them. We’ll stand strong. We’ll keep our country safe.”

Palestinian flags and a swastika are seen amid the black smoke of Gaza demonstrations, April 6, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson Unit)

Pictures from Gaza on Friday showed Nazi imagery among some protesters’ Palestinian flags.

The US on Friday blocked a UN Security Council statement supporting the right of Palestinians to “demonstrate peacefully” and endorsing Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for an independent investigation into deadly protests in Gaza.

The European Union on Saturday said the deaths of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border “raise serious questions about proportionate use of force” by Israel.

The Arab League’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said Arab ministers would discuss options to pursue the Palestinian issue at a meeting in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh on April 12 ahead of a summit of Arab leaders in the country on April 15.

Friday’s demonstration was the second of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” protests which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the “liberation of Palestine.”

An Islamist terror group, Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.

AP, Khaled Abu Toameh and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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