Netanyahu meets southern community leaders amid criticism over Gaza ceasefire

PM, along with top ministers and IDF chiefs, presents NIS 500 million support plan for border towns in bid to quell anger over restrained response to Hamas fire

Southern community council leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with senior cabinet ministers and army commander, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 15, 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)
Southern community council leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along with senior cabinet ministers and army commander, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 15, 2018. (Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday met with the mayors of the southern regional councils at his office in Jerusalem, amid sharp criticism over a ceasefire with the Hamas terror group that has brought the government to the brink of collapse.

Netanyahu called the meeting in an apparent bid to quell mounting anger over the truce with Hamas, which intensified Thursday after a senior Likud minister called the volley of hundreds of rockets fired at southern Israel this week “minor” because the Gaza terrorist groups were not targeting Tel Aviv.

In addition to the prime minister, the meeting was also attended by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, IDF Commander Gadi Eisenkot, and the army’s southern region commander Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

During the meeting Netanyahu and the army officers presented the community leaders with the military efforts being made against terror from the Gaza Strip.

The talks also reviewed a NIS 500 million ($130m) plan for 2019-2020 to boost southern communities’ resilience in dealing with attacks from the Palestinian enclave.

The plan, which will be brought for government approval in the coming weeks, includes provisions to improve emergency medical services, informal education and welfare services, and earmarks grants to local authorities for ongoing security measures, the Prime Minister’s Office statement said.

Tel Aviv residents protest alongside residents of Israel’s south over lack of security for communities in the south. The sign reads “Tel Aviv stands with you.” (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Earlier Thursday, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said that the Hamas rocket fire was “minor” because it was mostly concentrated around southern Israeli communities near Gaza. While the suffering of Israelis in such areas was “a nightmare” and “not negligible,”  had Hamas fired at Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport, it would have been “a different story,” he told Army Radio.

Hanegbi’s comments drew condemnation from Netanyahu and other lawmakers, who accused the minister of distinguishing between Israelis residing in small Gaza-adjacent communities in the south and those in the economic center of the country.

“Hamas’s aggression is not ‘minor’ and there is no distinction between Hamas fire against the residents of the south and fire against any other area of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement shortly after Hanegbi’s interview aired.

The truce with Hamas prompted Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to resign on Wednesday and has drawn criticism from some residents of southern Israel who accuse the government of being soft on Hamas. Hundreds of southerners demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Thursday night in a follow up two days of protests in which they burned tires and blocked the entrances to cities battered by Gaza rocket fire in protest of the ceasefire, which they say has left Hamas poised to renew attacks at will.

Following Liberman’s resignation and the withdrawal of his Yisrael Beynenu party from the coalition, the Jewish Home party quickly demanded that its leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, be given the defense portfolio instead or it too would bolt, toppling the government.

Missiles from the Iron Dome air defense system in the south of Israel destroy incoming missiles above Ashkelon fired from the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2018. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)According to the military, over 460 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel on Monday and Tuesday — more than twice the rate at which they were launched during the 2014 war and the largest-ever number of projectiles fired in one day. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted over 100 of them. Most of the rest landed in open fields, but dozens landed inside southern Israeli cities and towns, killing a Palestinian man in Ashkelon, injuring dozens, and causing significant property damage.

The flareup was triggered by a Israeli raid into Gaza that went awry on Sunday night and set off clashes, resulting in the deaths of a senior Israeli military officer and seven Palestinian fighters, including a local Hamas commander.

In response to the rocket and mortar attacks, the Israeli military said it targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, including four facilities that the army designated as “key strategic assets.”

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