Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday morning, upon returning from a brief visit to Russia, that war with terror groups in the Gaza Strip could break out “at any moment.”
Rockets have been fired at Israeli cities and communities multiple times over the past week — with most intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system or landing in open areas — drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. On Tuesday night, two rockets were launched at Ashdod during a campaign rally in the city by the premier, who was whisked off the stage by his bodyguards to take shelter.
In his comments, which came hours after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu asserted, “An operation in Gaza could happen at any moment, including four days before the elections. The date of the elections does not factor [into a decision to go to war].”
Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, September 17. Netanyahu, who is facing stiff competition in his bid to reclaim the premiership, has been seeking to hammer home his credentials and past achievements in security and diplomacy, but ongoing attacks from Gaza have remained a nagging thorn in his side, repeatedly exploited by his political rivals.
For many of those rivals, the scenes of Netanyahu being forced to take shelter from rockets provided a counterpoint to the image he has attempted to cultivate as Mr. Security, highlighting what they say is his government’s failure to deal with ongoing attacks from Gaza terror groups.
On Wednesday, before he departed Israel for the Russian resort city of Sochi, the prime minister said the military would likely be forced to go to war in Gaza in the near future — though he did not hint such a move could occur before the elections — following the spiraling tensions on the southern front in recent weeks.
“There probably won’t be a choice but to launch an operation, a war with the terror forces in Gaza,” the prime minister said in a radio interview with the Kan public broadcaster, kicking off a media blitz five days before the elections. “There probably won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas regime. Hamas doesn’t exert its sovereignty in the Strip and doesn’t prevent attacks.”
“We have a situation in which a terror group that launches rockets has taken over, and doesn’t rein in rogue factions even when it wants to,” Netanyahu said of Hamas, which has ruled the Strip since it took over in a bloody coup in 2007, and which says it seeks Israel’s destruction. It has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
“Israel’s citizens know very well that I act responsibly and reasonably, and we will start an operation at the right time, which I will determine,” said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.
Hinting that more “complex” military moves would possibly precede such a war, he said a military confrontation was “a last resort. I don’t endanger our soldiers and civilians to get applause.”
A day earlier, Netanyahu accused his rivals in the Blue and White party of “gloating” after he was rushed offstage to take cover as rockets fired from Gaza triggered sirens at his campaign event in Ashdod.
“A low point of the elections: Three former IDF chiefs of staff are gloating over fire at the prime minister. Shameful,” his Likud party tweeted, referring to Blue and White’s triumvirate of lieutenants-general: leader Benny Gantz, and MKs Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon.
Gantz had touted the fact that Ashkenazi remained onstage at a campaign event in Ashkelon as the alarm sounded, potentially putting himself in danger, while Netanyahu left the stage — as required by Home Front orders.
“We are not afraid — not of Hamas and not of Hezbollah. We are committed and we are here,” Gantz said at an event in the Druze village of Julis in the north. “Today we saw how the big words are replaced with zero action.”
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.