Netanyahu: Gaza operation is ‘just and moral,’ a few days of fighting lie ahead

Condemning ethnic violence in Israel, PM says country won’t tolerate ‘pogroms,’ and those who act like ‘terrorists’ will be dealt with as such

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a televised address, May 15, 2021. (GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a televised address, May 15, 2021. (GPO)

In a televised statement on Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s military operation in Gaza and also said Israel would not tolerate “pogroms” in its cities, referring to recent ethnic violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“There is no more just or moral operation,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, noting the hostilities began when Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem on Monday evening in “a totally unprovoked attack.”

Palestinian terror groups have tied the escalation in Gaza to clashes between police and Muslim worshipers on the Temple Mount during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the pending eviction of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over 2,300 rockets at Israel since the outbreak of fighting on Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Ten Israelis, including a young child, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured. The most recent casualty was on Saturday afternoon when a man was killed by a projectile that struck the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

“You know and I know no country would tolerate this. Israel will not tolerate this. Israel has responded forcefully to these attacks and will continue to respond forcefully,” Netanyahu said in English, following similar comments in Hebrew.

Netanyahu said that a “few days” of fighting still lay ahead. He accused Hamas of “committing a double war crime” by firing rockets at Israeli citizens from within population centers in Gaza. He also touted the “special care” Israel takes to avoid civilian casualties, such as alerting occupants of buildings it is going to strike before it bombs them.

Fire and smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Referring to Israel’s destruction of high-rise buildings, such as the one on Saturday that housed offices of foreign media outlets, Netanyahu said these buildings are being used by Hamas and other terror organizations.

He warned terror leaders: “You can’t hide, not above land or below it. No one is immune.”

He also thanked US President Joe Biden for his “clear and unequivocal support,” following a phone call with the American leader.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also issued an English-language statement Saturday night, appealing to the international community to back Israel amid the fighting against Hamas and the other Gaza terror groups. Gantz said he ordered the IDF to launch Operation Guardian of the Walls after Hamas began firing rockets toward Israel on Monday evening.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to air defense soldiers operating an Iron Dome missile defense battery in southern Israel on May 11, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“This was not a question of choice. It was a question of duty. Duty to our citizens. Duty to democracy. And duty to the values of life, freedom, and the rule of law. No country, institution, or international body can question our right to protect our citizens and our sovereignty,” he said. He urged Hamas to “stop terrorizing our people. And stop terrorizing yours.”

“It is absurd that we do everything in our power to avoid hitting your civilians while you cowardly hide behind them,” he said.

Gantz also called on every world leader “who values life and liberty to take a clear stand against this horrific violence” and support Israel’s right to defend itself.

Hamas rockets and Iron Dome interceptors light up the night sky over the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021.(Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

In his statement, Netanyahu also condemned recent riots in Israeli cities, with violence initiated by both Jews and Arabs.

Over the past week Israel experienced its worst internal Jewish-Arab chaos for many years, as scenes of unrest, rioting, hate rallies and growing social chaos spread throughout numerous cities, some of which had been seen as symbols of coexistence.

Several people, both Jewish and Arab, have been assaulted and seriously wounded in shooting incidents and beatings.

A firefighter is seen on the streets of the central city of Lod amid ongoing unrest, May 12, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“The Jewish state will not tolerate pogroms against our citizens. We will not allow our Jewish citizens to be lynched or live in fear of murderous Arab gangs. We will not tolerate the torching of synagogues and the torching of property,” he said.

He also said Israel “will not allow Jews to take the law into their own hands and attack innocent Arabs, or attempt to lynch an innocent Arab; there was one such case,” he said, apparently referring to an unprovoked vicious mob beating of an Arab man in Bat Yam.

“Whoever incites will pay a very heavy price,” he said. “Whoever acts as a terrorist will be punished as a terrorist.”

“To tolerate this unacceptable vigilantism and violence is to pave the way to anarchy,” he said.

Torched synagogues and cars and vandalized stores in the central Israeli city of Lod, following a night of heavy rioting by Arab residents in the city, on May 12, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu concluded: “I’m confident Israel will be able to deal with these threats from without and these threats from within.”

Earlier Saturday, Netanyahu spoke with Biden about the ongoing escalation in violence between Israel and terrorists in the Gaza Strip and said the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians, according to an Israeli statement on the call.

Biden, for his part, said he was worried about the safety of journalists in the conflict zone, after Israel demolished a Gaza tower where foreign journalists had offices. The IDF had warned occupants that it was going to demolish the tower, which it said was used as a Hamas intel HQ.

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets above the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 15, 2021, following their launching from the Gaza Strip (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

The president also stressed his support for “steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy dignity, security, freedom,” as part of a two-state solution.

The conversation, reportedly initiated by Biden, was the second between the two leaders this week.

Netanyahu updated Biden on Israel’s operations in Gaza and the future steps it plans to take there, according to the Israeli statement on the call.

Additionally, Netanyahu thanked Biden for the “unwavering support” of the United States for Israel’s right to defend itself, the statement said.

Police and rescue personnel at the Ramat Gan site hit by a rocket fired by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu “emphasized in the conversation that Israel is doing everything to avoid harming innocent civilians and the proof of this is that in towers where there are terror targets attacked by the IDF, they are given time to evacuate first,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

A few hours later the White House put out a statement on the call, saying Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. He condemned these indiscriminate attacks against towns and cities across Israel.”

The president also “updated the prime minister on high-level US engagement with regional partners on this issue and discussed ongoing diplomatic efforts. The president noted that this current period of conflict has tragically claimed the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children. He raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” the statement said.

Biden also expressed “grave concern” about the ethnic violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, according to the White House.

“He welcomed the statements by the prime minister and other leaders opposing such hateful acts and encouraged continued steps to hold violent extremists accountable and to establish calm,” it said.

The statement further said the two leaders discussed tensions in Jerusalem and “their shared desire” for the city “to be a place of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and backgrounds.”

Palestinians clean Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound on May 10, 2021, following renewed clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the scene (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Additionally, Biden “voiced his concern” about recent violence in the West Bank. At least nine West Bank Palestinians were killed by Israeli live fire during violent clashes with the Israel Defense Forces on Friday, the Palestinian Authority health ministry said.

“The president voiced his concern about violent confrontations in the West Bank. He expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom and economic opportunity that they deserve and affirmed his support for a two-state solution,” the statement said, before concluding that the two leaders agreed to continue communication in the coming days.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced the call shortly after the White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that the US has “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”

The comments from the Biden administration appeared to be the closest thing to criticism from the US of Israeli actions since the start of the latest round of violence and came shortly after Israel bombed the Gaza building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera, saying it was also being used by Hamas.

After warning occupants to leave, an Israeli airstrike flattened the tower in Gaza City.

A thick column of smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The Al Jala building hid “military assets” used by the intelligence wing of the Strip’s Hamas rulers, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement after the strike.

The IDF accused Hamas of “hiding behind” the offices of the press outlets in the tower and “using them as human shields.”

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)

Biden also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday in the first phone call between the two since Biden was inaugurated in January.

The US president “expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve,” according to the White House readout, which said that Biden also noted the recent decisions to restart aid to the Palestinians that was cut off by former president Donald Trump.

Separately, Gantz spoke by phone with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin on Saturday, with his office saying he thanked the defense secretary for the US administration’s backing of Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Gantz stressed to Austin that Israel is doing everything possible to refrain from harming the uninvolved and its goal is to achieve long-term calm vis-à-vis the [Hamas] terror group which aims to harm population centers,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, walks alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during an honor guard ceremony at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

The flurry of calls came after Biden on Thursday said he did not think Israel has overreacted in its response to rocket fire from Gaza as Washington worked to block the UN Security Council from holding an open meeting on the matter.

“One of the things I’ve seen thus far is that there has not been a significant overreaction [by Israel],” Biden said when asked at a press conference whether Netanyahu was doing enough to prevent an escalation.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council diplomats told The Times of Israel that the US mission had blocked an effort backed by all 14 other members to hold the week’s third emergency session on the escalation in Israel and Gaza. They had hoped for a session on Friday, which unlike the ones on Monday and Wednesday would have been an open meeting. Instead, the Security Council will now meet on Sunday at 10 a.m.

Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in Ramat Gan, where an Israeli man was killed, on May 15, 2021. (Oren ZIV / AFP)

In Gaza, the toll from the fighting climbed to 139 on Saturday, including dozens of children, with over 1,000 wounded, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip overnight Friday-Saturday hit a house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, killing at least 10 Palestinians, most of them children, Palestinians said.

Israeli military sources, quoted by Israel’s Channel 12 news on Saturday, said “senior Hamas figures” were meeting in the building at the time, and it was “not clear” how many of them were among the dead.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher and that dozens of those killed were terrorists. In addition, the IDF says some deaths were caused by errant rockets fired at Israel which fell short of their targets and landed in the Strip.

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