Netanyahu brushes off criticism of his response to Gaza violence

PM says large-scale military campaign may be necessary; Ya’alon accuses him of ‘paying protection money’ to Hamas; Liberman says cabinet members are ‘fools’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected recent criticism of the government for its Gaza policies, including granting economic concessions in exchange for Hamas agreeing to put an end to arson attacks and border riots even as the violence continued unabated.

“I’m not impressed by the propaganda of the ‘experts.’ Many of them give us advice they themselves did not implement when they were on duty,” Netanyahu said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, referring to statements made by political rivals who had formerly served as defense and army chiefs.

The prime minister also warned that Israel may be forced to go to war if there is no end to violence emanating from the Gaza Strip.

“And make no mistake, they will also be the first to criticize us after we embark on a large-scale military operation, which we may be forced to do. So what guides me is only one thing — the security of the State of Israel,” the prime minister said.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon sits with Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman during a swearing in ceremony for the 20th Knesset in Jerusalem on March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We understand the distress of the communities in the [Gaza] envelope area and we are working to make things as easy as possible,” Netanyahu said. “Last week we imposed heavy sanctions on Hamas including stopping the fuel supply. If necessary, we will act with other, much heavier means. These actions are carried out in consultation with all the security forces.”

Earlier Sunday, MKs Avigdor Liberman and Moshe Ya’alon attacked the government for agreeing to concessions for Gaza in exchange for a Hamas promise of calm.

Ya’alon, the No. 3 in the opposition Blue and White party who previously served as defense minister and IDF chief of staff, accused Netanyahu of paying “protection money” to Hamas.

“Instead of exacting a heavy price from Hamas over the [incendiary] kites and balloons… we are paying protection money,” Ya’alon told reporters as he toured areas along the Gaza border.

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire in Palma d’Ebre, near Tarragona, Spain on June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Jordi Borras)

Liberman, the hawkish leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, told the Kan public radio that cabinet members were “fools” for agreeing to what he called a surrender to Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza.

“The truce agreement or the surrender agreement includes one component — the ability to continue building force, building the strength of Hamas unhindered,” said Liberman, who resigned in November as defense minister to protest a previous ceasefire with Hamas.

On Friday, Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz railed against Netanyahu over the agreement, joining a chorus of opposition criticism over the premier’s policy toward the Palestinian enclave.

Gantz, a former IDF chief under Netanyahu, called for “strong attacks” on Hamas in response to incendiary balloon launches from Gaza. Israel’s last military foray into Gaza was the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, when Netanyahu was prime minister and Gantz was his army chief of staff.

Netanyahu has previously defended his Gaza policy by saying it was in Israel’s interest to do everything possible to avoid a major military operation in the Strip. Gantz has frequently attacked Netanyahu over Gaza on the campaign trail, but has given few details on what he would do differently if he were prime minister.

Earlier Friday, an Israeli official confirmed that the country had agreed to a number of economic concessions for Gaza in exchange for an end to arson attacks and other violence along the border. Israel agreed to extend the fishing zone off the Gaza coast to 15 nautical miles and also restore the supply of fuel to the Palestinian territory, the official said.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (R) speaks to reporters at a burnt field in southern Israel on June 28, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Israel does not officially admit to formal ceasefire deals with Hamas or publicly acknowledge dialogue with the terror group, which is usually carried out through Egyptian or international mediators. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, seized Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 and has ruled the territory ever since. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.

Arson attacks picked up considerably last week, with teams affiliated with Hamas launching hundreds of helium-inflated balloons and condoms carrying incendiary devices and, in some cases, explosives across the border into Israel.

There were no injuries in the blazes caused by those devices, most of which have occurred in agricultural fields and grasslands, but they have caused significant damage to crops and wildlife.

In response to the ongoing attacks, which represent a breach of an unofficial ceasefire agreement between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, Israel halted the flow of gasoline and diesel fuel into the Gaza Strip last Tuesday, a move that drew criticism from human rights advocates, who condemned it as collective punishment.

The restrictions on the fishing zone had also been criticized as a punishment for fishermen who have no link to the airborne attacks. Last week, Israel extended the fishing zone to 10 nautical miles, after it had been closed entirely for several days.

At the cabinet meeting Netanyahu also commented on last week’s US-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain, which reviewed Washington’s multi-billion dollar economic plan for the Palestinians as part of an as-yet unveiled peace agreement with Israel.

In this June 25, 2019, photo released by Bahrain News Agency, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner talks to the audience during the opening session of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain. (Bahrain News Agency via AP)

The prime minister quoted Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, who told The Times of Israel that “we do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it.”

The Palestinians boycotted the workshop and Israel, at the advice of Washington that struggled to get Arab states to participate, sent no officials either.

“The Israeli people all need to know that there are countries that want to make peace and are pushing the Palestinians to peace,” Netanyahu said. “This is part of our policy.”

Netanyahu noted that a Palestinian businessman who attended the Bahrain workshop was arrested by Palestinian security forces on his return to the West Bank, then later released — due to pressure from Washington, according to the prime minister.

“One thing is clear — the Palestinians are determined to continue the conflict at any price, including at the cost of the well-being of the Palestinians themselves,” Netanyahu said. “Those who want to promote peace do not act that way. On the other hand, we continue to promote ties with the Arab world, including today, and this serves everyone.”

Asked whether the US pressured the PA to free Saleh Abu Mayala, the US embassy in Jerusalem declined to comment.

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