Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday invited the mayors of the southern regional councils to his office in Jerusalem for a meeting amid mounting anger over the ceasefire with Hamas and comments from a minister who called a volley of hundreds of rockets fired at southern Israel this week “minor” because the Gaza terrorist groups were not targeting Tel Aviv.
The truce 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. Southern residents on Tuesday and Wednesday 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.
Netanyahu will be joined at the talks 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.
The announcement came after earlier Netanyahu rebuked Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzahi Hanegbi for minimizing the attacks on the south.
The Kibbutz Movement, an umbrella group for hundreds of agricultural collectives, many of which are located in southern Israel, accused Netanyahu of neglecting the southern communities that suffered most from the rocket fire.
“For many months residents of communities along the Gaza border have been dealing with Hamas terrorism,” the movement said in a statement. “For months you have not met with them, you have not heard them and you have not listened to them. Now, after the outrageous words of Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, don’t invite them to your office. Meet them in their homes. Come hear their cries and distress.”
“You have nothing to fear, they have bomb shelters to protect you, and there is no reason for you to hide. Come to the Gaza border communities and look them in the eye,” the statement said.
The Hamas rocket fire was minor, and mostly concentrated around southern Israeli communities near Gaza, Hanegbi told Army Radio in an interview Thursday morning. While the suffering of Israelis in the areas close to Gaza was “a nightmare” and “not negligible,” he said, had Hamas fired at Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport, it would have been a different story. Hanegbi later apologized for his comment.
Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Galam, whose city was hit multiple times in the rocket fire causing one death, several injuries, and significant damage to buildings, said Hanegbi’s comments were “a knife in the back of the [southern] residents.”
Hanegbi’s remark “further harms the strength and steadfastness of the residents, a mortal blow no less than the damage caused by the terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Galam said in a statement.
The minister’s comments also drew condemnation from Netanyahu and other lawmakers, who accused Hanegbi 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.
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.”
A Likud official said Wednesday Netanyahu would take charge of Liberman’s portfolio at least temporarily, and said the prime minister had begun consultations with heads of parties in order to stabilize his coalition. The Jewish Home party has demanded its leader Naftali Bennett be given the defense minister’s position.