Minister sorry if his comment calling Gaza rockets ‘minor’ was ‘misunderstood’

Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi says he never intended to draw a distinction between the lives of Tel Aviv residents and those in Gaza-adjacent communities

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi at the Knesset on July 9, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi at the Knesset on July 9, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud Minister Tzach Hanegbi on Thursday apologized for calling the volley of hundreds of rockets fired at southern Israel earlier this week “minor” because the Gaza terrorist groups were not targeting Tel Aviv.

The Hamas rocket fire was minor, and mostly concentrated around southern Israel near Gaza, Hanegbi had told Army Radio in an interview Thursday morning. While the suffering of Israelis in the areas close to Gaza was “a nightmare” and “not negligible,” he said, had Hamas fired at Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport, it would have been a different story.

The remark drew condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other lawmakers, who accused Hanegbi of distinguishing between Israelis residing in small Gaza-adjacent communities and those in the economic center of the country.

“I never made a distinction between the lives of the residents near Gaza and the lives of the residents of Tel Aviv. If what I said was misunderstood, I am sorry,” Hanegbi said in a statement.

Hanegbi said he intended to convey in his Army Radio interview earlier on Thursday that an extensive Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip would result in high IDF casualties and massive rocket fire on Tel Aviv, which would cause major economic damage and cripple the country’s air travel.

He called residents of southern Israel “courageous,” and said Netanyahu’s decision to accept the terms of an Egypt-brokered ceasefire that ended the two days of fighting aimed to restore calm in their communities.

Later, Hanegbi issued a further apology, saying he had misspoken and that the rocket fire was “certainly not minor” for the residents of the south. “To all residents of the south, my heart is with you,” he said in a Hadashot TV interview.

According to the military, over 460 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel on Monday and Tuesday — more than twice the rate at which they were launched during the 2014 war and the largest-ever number of projectiles fired in one day. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted over 100 of them. Most of the rest landed in open fields, but dozens landed inside southern Israeli cities and towns, killing a Palestinian man in Ashkelon, injuring dozens, and causing significant property damage.

An apartment building in Ashkelon hit by a Hamas rocket, killing one, November 13, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The flareup was triggered by a Israeli raid into Gaza that went awry on Sunday and set off clashes, resulting in the deaths of a senior Israeli military officer and seven Palestinian fighters, including a local Hamas commander.

In response to the rocket and mortar attacks, the Israeli military said it targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, including four facilities that the army designated as “key strategic assets.”

Israel and Hamas have since reached a ceasefire agreement to end the fighting. The truce prompted Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to resign on Wednesday and has drawn criticism from some residents of southern Israel who accuse the government of being soft on Hamas.

Hanegbi’s remarks to Army Radio were seen as an effort to shelter Netanyahu from growing criticism over his handling of the Gaza flareup, and were quickly condemned by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

The prime minister rushed to condemn Hanegbi’s characterization of the latest rocket fire from Gaza.

“Hamas’s aggression is not ‘minor’ and there is no distinction between Hamas fire against the residents of the south and fire against any other area of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement shortly after Hanegbi’s interview aired.

Fellow Likud Minister Miri Regev tweeted that his remark was “inappropriate,” She also indicated that she opposed Netanyahu’s decision to accept a ceasefire.

In the Tuesday security cabinet meeting that led to the informal ceasefire, Hanegbi said in his initial interview [Hebrew], “we all thought it was right to put an end to the violence from Gaza.” Liberman advocated “a harsh blow” and the other option was “to see if a [ceasefire] arrangement was possible. We’re testing that second option now.”

Liberman’s suggested harsh blow, Hanegbi said, “would mean entering a lengthy operation during which Tel Aviv would be paralyzed by hundreds of rockets daily, for days or weeks, if not longer.” Israel, he said, would have no way to stop that “except by sending our soldiers to every hole in Gaza.” The airport, he added, would also be “paralyzed for weeks, with all the implications for the economy and tourism.”

But there are no wars without a price, challenged his interviewer. Hanegbi responded: “That’s the issue. At the end of that operation [proposed by Liberman], with hundreds of funerals of young Israeli soldiers, we’d be back in the same place where we are now.”

He said most ministers shared the view of the entire security establishment, and of the prime minister, that now was not the appropriate moment for a major operation, when the same result could be achieved at a low price.

He derided those who, he said, had been talking of this week’s flareup “as though it was almost the Yom Kippur War,” and then detailed his view of how the escalation unfolded:

“We initiated a [special forces] operation deep inside [Gaza on Sunday evening]. This was apparently in contravention of the agreed truce [hitherto in force with Hamas]. We believed it was a vital operation. It went awry. To extricate our forces [one of whom was killed], we killed seven terrorists.”

Explaining the Hamas rocket response, he continued: “It wasn’t that Hamas acted without a pretext. It had a pretext — to try to exact revenge. Its revenge was minor. In all, it managed, with 400 rockets, to kill one Palestinian.”

Those rockets, he acknowledged, “are a nightmare for the residents of the south.” But practically, he went on, “270 of them fell in the Gaza area.”

When it was put to him that one rocket fell on an empty kindergarten, Hanegbi replied: “The empty kindergarten — that’s always talked about. But those 500 coffins — of the Israeli youths that would come back if we sent them into [Gaza’s] Jabalaya [refugee camp] — would not be empty.”

Urged Hanegbi: “Let’s keep a sense of proportion… We had no interest in now being drawn into a wider operation… The Gaza [border] area [in southern Israel] is not negligible, but there’s a difference between that and Tel Aviv and the airport.”

Hanegbi also said he was “amazed,” in a good way, by a Hadashot TV news survey on Wednesday night that showed 74% of respondents were not satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the escalation and that Likud would win 29 seats (from its current 30) if elections were held today. “In light of the anger” so widespread in the country after Israel and Hamas agreed to halt their fire, seeing the Likud down by merely one seat,  he said, was “a surprise… for the better.”

Iron Dome missiles intercept rockets from Gaza southern Israel, November 12, 2018. Hadas Parush/Flash90

Opposition leaders also criticized Hanegbi. Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay accused the Netanyahu government of discriminating against its own citizens, and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called Hanegbi’s distinction a “moral outrage.”

In the Thursday morning radio interview, Hanegbi also weighed in on Liberman’s abrupt resignation in protest of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the terms of the ceasefire that brought an end to the violence.

He slammed fellow minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett for threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless he was given the defense portfolio in the wake of Liberman’s departure.

“Being appointed a senior position by issuing a violent dictate to the prime minister goes against the concept of a coalition partnership,” he said.

Hanegbi said that while he believed himself to be “more suitable for the job than others,” Netanyahu would most likely keep the defense portfolio for himself.

Earlier on Thursday, Liberman officially tendered his resignation, and was holding his final meetings at the defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is also quitting Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving the premier with only a two-seat advantage over the opposition in parliament and throwing his government into turmoil.

A Likud official said Wednesday Netanyahu would take charge of Liberman’s portfolio at least temporarily, and said the prime minister had begun consultations with heads of parties in order to stabilize his coalition.

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