Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday clashed in the Knesset plenum with Arab lawmakers protesting the ongoing strikes on terror targets in the Gaza Strip, saying Israel has been taking care to avoid harming Palestinian civilians.
Israel and Gazan terrorists have been exchanging heavy fire since Israel killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata early Tuesday in a targeted strike. The organization has since launched more than 250 rockets at Israeli cities and communities, while retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 23 people, mostly terror group members attempting to launch rockets.
“Despite repeated requests by security officials, I have refrained from approving some actions because we looked at the chances of [uninvolved people] being hurt,” Netanyahu said during a Knesset discussion on the escalation of violence.
Members of the mostly Arab Joint List party have been attending demonstrations against the operation and accusing the prime minister of war crimes.
Netanyahu on Wednesday accused them of encouraging terrorism. Some Joint List Knesset members responded by shouting “you are lying and inciting against us” during his speech, and MK Ahmad Tibi was subsequently sent of out the chamber by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Other Joint List members voluntarily exited the plenum hall.
“If you hurt [civilians] intentionally, then you are committing war crimes,” Netanyahu said. “War crime is what the terrorists from Gaza are doing — they are intentionally trying to hit civilians and are hiding behind civilians. You are glorifying their war crimes.
“Yesterday I heard about a supportive rally by you in which a lawmaker tried in every way to denounce us as war criminals. It is intolerable,” Netanyahu added.
“We are making every effort, efforts that no army in the world makes, to try and make surgically precise hits… Maximum harm to terrorists, minimum harm to uninvolved people. The operation yesterday [of assassinating Abu al-Ata] will be studied, and is already being studied, by armies around the world trying to make that distinction,” he argued.
Explaining later why he exited the hall while Netanyahu spoke, Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish Joint List MK, said: “Netanyahu isn’t content with the starvation, death and destruction he imposes on Gaza and the severe harm to the communities around Gaza. Today he added insult to injury and came to the plenum to incite and lie and justify himself.
“We went out because there was no point in staying. Even Netanyahu doesn’t believe Netanyahu.”
On Tuesday, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh slammed Netanyahu, accusing him of ordering the killing of Abu al-Ata for political gain.
“A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office,” Odeh tweeted. “For ten years he has risen every morning with the aim of deepening the occupation [of the West Bank] and distancing the chances for peace.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office said the premier had spoken on the phone with council heads from Gaza-adjacent areas and told them: “We are changing the equation.”
“The leaders, commanders and fighters of the terrorist organizations know that they are in the crosshairs and that we can take action against them anywhere, anytime,” he said. “They understand this message very well… I very much appreciate your steadfastness and support, and that of your residents.”
Abu al-Ata was thought to be the powerful head of the northern Gaza branch of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, and was seen as responsible for numerous rocket attacks on the country.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.