Ministers push hard response to rocket attack; Gantz: PM ‘lost grip on security’

Ministers push hard response to rocket attack; Gantz: PM ‘lost grip on security’

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum urge stern action against Hamas after projectile from Gaza hits house in central Israel, injuring 7

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Government ministers and lawmakers from across the political spectrum called Monday morning for stern action against the Hamas terror group after a rocket fired from Gaza during the night hit a house in Israel’s central region, injuring seven people, including two infants.

As several ministers urged a return to the policy of targeted assassinations of terror leaders, both rivals and allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against what they described as a weak and ineffective response to ongoing provocations from the Gaza Strip. In a blistering attack on the premier he hopes to replace in April’s election, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said that Netanyahu had “lost his grip on security.”

Economy Minister Eli Cohen, a member of the Kulanu party, said that Israel must utilize targeted assassinations against both Hamas leaders and those of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Gaza terror group capable of launching rockets into Israel’s heartland.

“Restoring the deterrence will be done by again sending the Hamas and Jihad chiefs underground,” he said in a statement criticizing previous Israeli responses to rocket fire which have focused on Hamas infrastructure, rather than its leadership.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen attends a press conference at the Ministry of Finance in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2018. (Flash90)

“Not [hitting] rocket factories, abandoned buildings, or sand dunes — only preemptive assassinations which make it clear that anyone who gives an order to fire at Israel is dead. That is the policy that I will support when the cabinet meets,” Cohen said.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, a close ally of Netanyahu, appeared to suggest Israel’s response will target Hamas terror group leaders.

“Evacuating terror headquarters will not help them this time,” she warned in a statement. “We’ll chase them down wherever they may be.

“As I have been saying for two years now, we must return to the policy of targeted assassinations. Only when the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip feel that they are being persecuted and targeted, will they begin to understand us differently.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

The attack triggered air raid sirens at approximately 5:20 a.m. throughout the Sharon and Emek Hefer regions north of Tel Aviv, the army said. According to the military, the rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip, where earlier this month two rockets were also fired at Tel Aviv, in what was described at the time as an apparent “mistake” by Hamas, an Islamist terror group which seeks to destroy Israel.

In a statement issued from Washington where both he and Netanyahu are currently visiting, Gantz said that the attack on the Sharon region was the latest example in an escalating security situation which, he claimed, the government has failed to address sufficiently.

“Netanyahu has lost his grip on Israel security and Israeli citizens are again experiencing sirens and a direct hit on a house,” the former IDF chief of staff said, calling on Netanyahu to cut short his US trip and return to Israel to deal with the situation, a move that the prime minister announced minutes later.

“There is a security bankruptcy and Netanyahu needs to pack up immediately and go back to Israel to deal with this serious escalation,” Gantz said. “Will he still be satisfied with Hamas’ announcement of a mistake or will he finally concentrate on the security of the country’s citizens and not on his legal affairs? Someone who doesn’t respond with aggressiveness and force and pays protection to Hamas, now gets rockets on the Sharon.”

An infant’s swing outside the home of the Wolf family in the central Israeli village of Mishmeret, which was destroyed in the early morning hours of March 25, 2019 by a rocket fired from Gaza. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Gantz was referring to the terms of an unofficial Egypt-brokered agreement from November in which Hamas agreed to scale back months of border violence in return from Israel allowing Qatar to bring tens of millions of dollars in cash into Gaza. Separately, Netanyahu is also facing indictments, pending a hearing, in three corruption cases.

The prime minister is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump at the White House later Monday and was set to address the AIPAC annual conference on Tuesday. After the rocket fire, Netanyahu said in a statement that he had held consultations with security chiefs, would meet with Trump, and then rush back to Israel.

Gantz’s number two in the Blue and White party, MK Yair Lapid also accused Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, of being too preoccupied with other matters to attend to the security of the country.

Benny Gantz speaking at the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Sunday, February 17, 2019. (AP/Matthias Schrader)

“I am in favor of a responsible and considered policy, but this is not a balanced policy,” Lapid wrote on his Facebook page. “Netanyahu simply does not respond. He is too busy with other matters and Israel has lost its deterrence.”

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is third on the Blue and White slate, said “Netanyahu has lost our security.”

“Netanyahu has surrendered to terror – the time has come for a strong, experienced and responsible leadership that will restore security to the citizens of Israel,” he said in a statement.

Criticism was also heard from Netanyahu’s ostensible allies on the right.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a New Right party press conference in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The New Right party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is hankering for the defense portfolio, said in a statement that Netanyahu is a “good prime minister but a failed defense minister.”

“Israel’s deterrence has collapsed, and it has to be said in all honesty, Netanyahu has failed against Hamas. Releasing terrorists, scared to destroy the homes of terrorists, restraint in the face of the rockets on the south – all of which led Hamas to stop being afraid of Israel.”

“Netanyahu is a good prime minister but a failed defense minister. The time has come to appoint Bennett as defense minister in order to defeat Hamas.”

Rafi Peretz, leader of the Union of Right Wing Parties alliance echoed Gantz in saying Israel’s response to over a year of border violence with Gaza has been too soft.

Daniel Wolf, a member of the family whose home in the central Israeli village of Mishmeret was destroyed in a Gaza rocket attack on March 25, 2019, wounding seven people, speaks to reporters outside the pediatric wing at Kfar Saba’s Meir Hospital, where two of his daughters were among those treated for wounds in the attack. (Flash90)

“A policy that allows incendiary balloons to threaten Alumim and Ein Habesor allows terrorist to fire missiles at Tel Aviv and the central region,” he said in a statement.

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, visiting the site where the rocket landed, declared Netanyahu “has returned security in the Gaza vicinity and now in the center of the country to the early 1950s.”

“Netanyahu is responsible for the poor security situation,” Gabbay said. “He has lost our deterrence and strengthened Hamas. The time has come for us to deal with Hamas with courage and not with Netanyahu’s cowardice.”

Bucking the trend, the dovish left-wing Meretz party said in a statement that “There is no military solution to Gaza.”

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, left, speaks with media at the site where a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the central Israeli community of Mishmeret, on the Sharon plain, March 25, 2019. (Labor party)

“At the end of the day, deteriorating into an all out conflict is not an Israeli interest and we must not be dragged there, it would only mean more fatalities and injuries and at the end a return to the same point. Israel’s civilians are paying the price of the Netanyahu government’s avoidance of diplomatic negotiations.”

There are fears that violence will ramp up this week, with Hamas hoping to draw hundreds of thousands of rioters to the fence at the weekend to mark a year of so-called March of Return protests, which began March 30, 2018.

Police said the projectile early Monday struck a building in the community of Mishmeret, on the Sharon plain, causing it to catch fire. The shrapnel from the rocket attack also caused significant damage to the surrounding area.

The Iron Dome missile defense system did not appear to have been activated by the rocket attack. The military said it was still investigating the matter. There were no immediate reports of an Israeli retaliation.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the source of the rocket attack.

Recent weeks have seen escalating tensions in the Gaza Strip, as its de facto rulers the Hamas terror group feuds with both Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. Domestically, the terror group has also faced protests and increased criticism as humanitarian conditions in the Strip continue to deteriorate.

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