PM, Liberman back IDF chief after ex-coalition whip blames him for Gaza unrest

Defense minister blasts ‘intolerable’ comments by David Bitan that Eisenkot holding back on operations; Netanyahu: ‘The chief of staff is doing an excellent job’

MK David Bitan speaks with supporters at a Likud party event in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
MK David Bitan speaks with supporters at a Likud party event in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday lashed former coalition chairman David Bitan after the latter criticized the IDF chief’s policies in Gaza, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Bitan’s comments and praised the army head.

Bitan, who left his post as coalition whip in 2017 due to a corruption investigation but who remains a Likud MK, claimed Gadi Eisenkot had lost Israel’s deterrent capability against violence from the Gaza Strip by holding back against military operations to quell months of border unrest.

Liberman called the comments “intolerable” and “unthinkable” and said they cause “true harm to national security.”

Netanyahu noted: “We are facing several fronts and are constantly challenged and active. I want you to know the chief of staff is doing an excellent job.”

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left, Prime Minister Benjamin, center, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, attend a security council meeting at the Kirya, the IDF Headquarters, in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermony/Ministry of Defense)

Bitan told Army Radio in an interview that as Egyptian-brokered negotiations with the Hamas terror group in Gaza appear to have failed, it was time to look at other means.

He asserted that Eisenkot was “not recommending operations” and said the cabinet could not order broad military action without the backing of the army.

“The army is capable of providing an operational solution [but] it doesn’t want to give it,” Bitan told the radio station. “The cabinet’s hands are tied.

“The prime minister is trying to create an arrangement, by way of Egyptian intelligence and [Palestinian Authority Preisdent Mahmoud] Abbas, via other countries, but he is not succeeding and so we need to act in other ways,” Bitan said.

Egypt has reportedly been working for several weeks to hammer out an agreement to end the violence which has continued for months and gained intensity in the last two weeks.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked also took issue with Bitan’s position, saying that the army was not responsible for decision-making.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at the Maariv Conference, held at Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem on October 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If someone has criticism it should be directed at the political leadership,” Shaked said at a conference also attended by her Jewish Home party’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett. “It is not the army that lays down policy and I say that as a cabinet member.”

Bennett reiterated his calls for a firmer hand against Gaza, saying there should be a shoot-to-kill policy for anyone who infiltrates Israel via the border with the Strip or seeks to harm Israeli citizens.

Meanwhile deputy Knesset speaker and opposition lawmaker Meir Cohen, of the Yesh Atid party, declared that Bitan was serving as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, who was criticizing the army chief to avoid responsibility.

“It was only a matter of time before the prime minister would sharpen his inciting tongue against the chief of staff and accuse him of losing the deterrence against Hamas,” Cohen said in a statement. “The person responsible for the loss of deterrence is the prime minister, Mr Security.”

Black smoke from burning tires covers the sky as Palestinian protesters hurl stones toward Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Fellow Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah similarly attacked Bitan, saying in a statement that the government was being “cowardly.

“The prime minister sends MK Bitan to lash out at the chief of staff on the loss of deterrence in Gaza,” Shelah said. “There is nothing more insolent. It is the political leadership that lays down goals and instructs the army on what to do, and a cowardly political leadership that lacks ideas can’t hide behind military people.”

Since March, Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, has orchestrated near-weekly protests along the Gaza fence, which have seen repeated violent clashes between Palestinian rioters and IDF troops, and frequent penetrations of the perimeter. Some 155 Palestinians have been killed, according to AP figures; Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza, has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members.

The protests have also seen Palestinians sending incendiary devices attached to balloons into Israeli territory, sparking fires that have scorched over 7,000 acres of land and caused millions of shekels in damage.

The security cabinet on Sunday decided to hold off on a wide-scale military offensive in the Gaza Strip for at least a week, despite warnings that Israel was poised to unleash a serious response to the recent surge in deadly violence .

The rising border tensions peaked on Friday amid heavy rioting at the fence separating Israel from Gaza. Seven Palestinians were killed, including three who breached the border fence and ran toward IDF soldiers during the chaotic unrest.

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