Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a scheduled campaign appearance at an event in southern Israel on Monday, shortly after a Gaza terrorist group released a threatening video aimed at the premier.
The incident recalled two similar episodes in 2019, when Netanyahu was forced to take shelter during campaign events in the south due to rocket fire, generating humiliating images for Netanyahu and ammunition for his political opponents.
Netanyahu canceled his appearance at Monday night’s event at a cultural center in Ashkelon at the last minute, leaving his supporters waiting for him to appear for over two hours. In the end, he spoke to the audience via video and apologized for not showing up.
Netanyahu initially said he had not gone to the event due to reasons he could not elaborate on, while his associates said “policy discussions” were to blame, according to Channel 12.
But in a Tuesday interview with the Ynet news site, Netanyahu said he missed the event because he was holding “an important diplomatic conversation with a leader in the region,” adding that the public would hear details about that call in the future.
Shortly before the event, the Gaza-based terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad released a video showing its members preparing to fire rockets at Israel. At the end of the video was footage of Netanyahu leaving an event following the 2019 rocket fire incidents. Over the image was the text, in Hebrew, “You forget.”
Islamic Jihad is smaller than the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group, but enjoys direct backing from Iran, has a sizable arsenal and has in the past been more willing than Hamas to spark conflict with Israel.
In September 2019, terrorists in Gaza fired rockets near a Netanyahu campaign event in Ashdod, forcing the premier to briefly leave the stage and take cover.
רגע הפינוי של ראש הממשלה נתניהו, אחרי שהופעלה אזעקה באשוד. pic.twitter.com/Y2KLOnrx8d
— almog boker (@bokeralmog) September 10, 2019
For many rivals, the scenes of Netanyahu being whisked away by a group of bodyguards provided a counterpoint to the image he was attempting to cultivate in his campaign as Mr. Security, highlighting what critics said was his government’s failure to deal with attacks from Gaza terror groups.
Both right-wing and left-wing political party leaders including Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman slammed Netanyahu over the episode.
Months later, in December 2019, Palestinian terrorists fired a rocket toward Ashkelon as Netanyahu was campaigning in the city, prompting him to be rushed off stage and take cover.
Neither incident resulted in any injuries.
At the time, Netanyahu was attempting to thread a line between keeping Gazan groups deterred from attacking Israel while also being wary not to push the Strip into a fresh war. Critics slammed him for reaching a series of tacit ceasefire agreements with Hamas.
There were also regular mass protests at the Gaza border at the time which often turned violent.
The Israel-Gaza border has been relatively quiet in the past year as both Israel and Hamas contend with COVID-19.
Last week, Hamas blamed Israel for an explosion that killed three fishermen off the coast of Gaza, leading several armed factions in Gaza to vow revenge, including Islamic Jihad.
Hamas interior ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Bozm said that the three fishermen were killed by an explosion caused by a downed Israeli drone that had been caught in their net.
Israel has denied any involvement in the incident.
Observers had suspected that a mortar or rocket launched by Hamas had unintentionally struck the fishermen’s boat, killing them instantly. Hamas regularly fires experimental rockets toward the sea, both to test their military capacities and as a show of force.
Israel will hold elections, the fourth in two years, on March 23.
Netanyahu is fending off opponents on both his right and left as polls predict political deadlock following the vote.
The upcoming elections were called after the power-sharing government of Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.