Likud minister slams ‘inexperienced’ Bennett for failing to stop Gaza balloons
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Likud minister slams ‘inexperienced’ Bennett for failing to stop Gaza balloons

Former general says defense minister shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the steps needed to end airborne incendiary devices flown into southern Israel

Minister of Housing and Construction Yoav Gallant speaks at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build new apartments in Haifa, March 19, 2018. (Flash90)
Minister of Housing and Construction Yoav Gallant speaks at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build new apartments in Haifa, March 19, 2018. (Flash90)

Likud minister Yoav Gallant on Friday attacked Naftali Bennett, saying the defense minister was failing to provide a solution to the airborne incendiary devices flown into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The past week has seen near-daily rocket and mortar attacks and dozens of balloon-borne explosive devices launched from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel, generally landing in or near communities closer to the Hamas-ruled enclave.

“Over the past two weeks, Hamas has launched dozens of explosives attached to balloons toward Israel — an act of terror and a dangerous escalation,” Gallant wrote on Twitter.

“It turns out that he who scattered worthless rhetoric in the past and had a fundamental lack of understanding and experience, is deficient in his understanding of the situation and in his ability to provide a suitable response to it,” wrote Gallant, a member of the high-level security cabinet and a former IDF general. “We can and we must end this.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Prior to his appointment as defense minister, Bennett relentlessly criticized the government’s handling of violence from Hamas-run Gaza, demanding a harsher response. He was named defense minister late last year, reportedly in a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop the New Right lawmaker from joining forces with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

The cabinet approved Bennett’s appointment as interim defense minister amid internal grumbling from Likud ministers and a dissenting vote by Gallant.

Gallant’s statement came as police said suspected airborne explosive devices were found in three locations in southern Israel on Friday and there were reports of a fourth device found in the Merhavim Regional Council area.

Sappers were scrambled in the town of Sderot, as well as to locations in the Ashkelon coastal council and Lachish region.

Suspected airborne explosive device found in Merhavim Regional Council, February 7, 2020 (Yariv Hajbi)

The Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip, on Wednesday called on Palestinians to step up confrontations with Israel.

Thursday saw violence that included three attacks on Israelis — shooting attacks near the Temple Mount and the West Bank, and a car-ramming terror attack at a popular entertainment spot in the capital, which injured 12 soldiers, one of them seriously.

Israeli security forces were on high alert Friday in Jerusalem, with thousands of extra police officers being deployed to the Old City ahead of the Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

On Wednesday night, Palestinian terrorists in the Strip fired at least two mortar shells at southern Israel, which apparently struck an open field in southern Israel. No damage or injuries were reported.

Shortly after midnight, Israeli aircraft responded by hitting Hamas tunnel infrastructure in southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said, adding that this was in response to both the mortar attack and to a number of balloon-borne explosive devices that were flown into southern Israel from Gaza throughout Wednesday.

Illustrative: Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, November 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

“We understand that Hamas is letting these things happen in the past few weeks, especially with the balloons, as well as looking the other way while others fire rockets and mortar shells,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said Thursday.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group is trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in ongoing ceasefire negotiations.

Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu told some municipal leaders in the Gaza area that Israel could launch extensive military operations in the enclave — before the upcoming Knesset elections if necessary — should Palestinian terrorists continue firing rockets and launching balloon-borne explosive devices at southern Israel.

Netanyahu told the council chairmen that while Israel was making significant efforts to ensure calm in the area, the military was ready for an operation in Gaza if needed, according to Hebrew media reports.

The prime minister only met with southern municipal leaders who are members of his Likud party, sparking fury among the mayors who were not invited to the meeting.

On Wednesday, the military announced it was reducing the size of the Gaza fishing zone by a third in light of the continued rocket fire and arson attacks.

“Following security consultations, it has been decided today [Wednesday], to restrict the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip from 15 nautical miles to 10 nautical miles, starting from 4 p.m. until further notice,” the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians — known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — said in a statement.

Israel routinely restricts the Gaza fishing zone in response to terrorist activities in the Strip, which some human rights groups decry as a form of collective punishment.

Tensions between Israel and Gaza have been steadily rising over the past two weeks, after several months of relative calm following a major round of fighting in November. Fears have mounted in recent days of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last week of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel.

In response to the launches, all of which have struck open fields in southern Israel, the IDF has conducted airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Late last month a senior Hamas official said the recent uptick in number of balloons was a signal to Israel to accelerate unofficial “understandings” meant to ease the blockade on the territory ruled by the terror group.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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