Likud minister: I don’t buy claim rockets fired at Tel Aviv were a mistake

Tzachi Hanegbi says government not interested in being dragged into war with Hamas, suggests critics in opposition not satisfied with Israel’s response because no Gazans killed

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at a cultural event in Ra'anana on March 16, 2018. (Screen capture/Ynet)
Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at a cultural event in Ra'anana on March 16, 2018. (Screen capture/Ynet)

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Saturday he does not believe an Israel Defense Forces assessment that a pair of rockets fired at Tel Aviv two days earlier were launched by mistake.

“We have not received any explanation for the mistake, but personally I do not believe that it was a mistake,” the top Likud minister said during an onstage interview at a cultural event in the central town of Ra’anana.

In response to the rockets, Israeli war planes hit over 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight Thursday and Friday morning.

Hanegbi said: “Even for mistakes, if that is indeed what it was, one must pay. We stopped after 100 targets were destroyed, but we have countless other targets if necessary.”

The rockets fired toward Tel Aviv were the first such occurrence since a major conflict in 2014, and did not hit residential areas and caused no direct injury.

An IDF assessment found that the rockets were possibly fired toward the coastal city by mistake, and that low-level Hamas forces were responsible for the launches. It was not clear if the IDF believed it was a technical malfunction or human error.

A Palestinian man walks past a crater on the ground following an Israeli air strike targeting a site belonging to Gaza’s terror group Hamas, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, March 15, 2019. Israel struck Gaza terror targets after 2 rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from Gaza. (Said Khatib/AFP)

On Thursday, a Hamas official told The Times of Israel that the terror group “has no interest in an escalation” with Israel. The official said he had “no idea” who fired rockets toward Tel Aviv.

The Hamas-run interior ministry called the rocket fire “outside the national consensus” and said it would exact measures against those behind it.

On Friday, Channel 13 reported that low-level Hamas operatives “messed with” a Gaza beach rocket launcher that was set up to target Tel Aviv in the event of future conflict, causing two Fajr-5 missiles to fire.

News of rocket sirens blaring in Tel Aviv broke as Yahya Sinwar and other Hamas leaders were meeting with an Egyptian delegation trying to mediate eased Israeli economic restrictions on Gaza, the report said.

The Egyptians then called Israeli defense chiefs and relayed they had been told the launch was a mistake. Israel told the Egyptian delegation to leave Gaza — the delegates crossed into Israel at the Erez border crossing — and then began its retaliatory strikes on Hamas targets.

An incoming Gaza rocket against the backdrop of the Tel Aviv skyline, March 14, 2019 (Screen capture/YouTube)

Late Friday morning, Palestinian media and the Kan public broadcaster reported that Israel and Hamas had reached a ceasefire. There was no confirmation from Israel.

Hanegbi also took issue with criticism from political opponents including Blue and White chair and former army chief of staff Benny Gantz and New Right head Naftali Bennett, who said that Israel’s response had not been forceful enough.

“Our response was strong and firm, so when I hear that some are asking for even stronger action, I assume that our strong and powerful attack, which did not lead to casualties, was not enough for them,” he said, suggesting that rivals were judging success by the body count on the Palestinian side.

“We acted in a responsible and reasonable manner. We have no desire to be dragged into war,” Hanegbi added.

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