Senior Likud cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Thursday drew widespread condemnation, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for calling the barrage of rockets fired at Israel earlier this week “minor” and “measured” because the Gaza terrorist groups did not target Tel Aviv.
The Hamas rocket fire was minor, and mostly concentrated around the southern Israel Gaza-adjacent area, 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.
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. 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 an Israeli raid into Gaza that went awry on Sunday, and set off clashes resulting in the deaths of seven Palestinian fighters, including a local Hamas commander, and a senior Israeli military officer.
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.”
Israel and Hamas have since reached an informal ceasefire agreement to end the fighting. 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.
Netanyahu swiftly condemned Hanegbi’s characterization on Thursday, saying: “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.”
In the Tuesday security cabinet meeting that led to the informal ceasefire, Hanegbi said in the interview, “we all thought it was right to put an end to the violence from Gaza.” Liberman advocated “a harsh blow” and the other option was “to see if a [ceasefire] arrangement was possible. We’re testing that second option now.”
Liberman’s suggested harsh blow, Hanegbi said, “would mean entering a lengthy operation during which Tel Aviv would be paralyzed by hundreds of rockets daily, for days or weeks, if not longer.” Israel, he said, would have no way to stop that “except by sending our soldiers to every hole in Gaza.” The airport, he added, would also be “paralyzed for weeks, with all the implications for the economy and tourism.”
But there are no wars without a price, challenged his interviewer. Hanegbi responded: “That’s the issue. At the end of that operation [proposed by Liberman], with hundreds of funerals of young Israeli soldiers, we’d be back in the same place where we are now.”
He said most ministers shared the view of the entire security establishment, and of the prime minister, that now was not the appropriate moment for a major operation, when the same result could be achieved at a low price.
He derided those who, he said, had been talking of this week’s flareup “as though it was almost the Yom Kippur War,” and then detailed his view of how the escalation unfolded:
“We initiated a [special forces] operation deep inside [Gaza on Sunday evening]. This was apparently in contravention of the agreed truce [hitherto in force with Hamas]. We believed it was a vital operation. It went awry. To extricate our forces [one of whom was killed], we killed seven terrorists.”
Explaining the Hamas rocket response, he continued: “It wasn’t that Hamas acted without a pretext. It had a pretext — to try to exact revenge. Its revenge was minor. In all, it managed, with 400 rockets, to kill one Palestinian.”
Those rockets, he acknowledged, “are a nightmare for the residents of the south.” But practically, he went on, “270 of them fell in the Gaza area.”
When it was put to him that one rocket fell on an empty kindergarten, Hanegbi replied: “The empty kindergarten — that’s always talked about. But those 500 coffins — of the Israeli youths that would come back if we sent them into [Gaza’s] Jabalaya [refugee camp] — would not be empty.”
Urged Hanegbi: “Let’s keep a sense of proportion… We had no interest in now being drawn into a wider operation… The Gaza [border] area [in southern Israel] is not negligible, but there’s a difference between that and Tel Aviv and the airport.”
Hanegbi also said he was “amazed,” in a good way, by a Hadashot TV news survey on Wednesday night that showed 74% of respondents were not satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the escalation and that the Likud would win 29 seats (from its current 30) if elections were held today. “In light of the anger” so widespread in the country after Israel and Hamas agreed to halt their fire, seeing the Likud down by merely one seat, he said, was “as surprise… for the better.”
Hanegbi’s remarks, seen as an effort to shelter Netanyahu from growing criticism over his handling of the two days of heavy fighting in Gaza, were quickly condemned by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Fellow Likud Minister Miri Regev tweeted that Hanegbi’s remarks were “inappropriate,” although she also indicated that she opposed Netanyahu’s decision to accept a ceasefire.
“Tzachi, my friend, you are wrong and your statement is inappropriate. Gaza-adjacent areas and Tel Aviv are the same,” she said. “Rocket fire endangering the safety and security of Israeli citizens must be met with an equally harsh response.”
Opposition leaders also slammed Hanegbi, with Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay accusing the Netanyahu government of discriminating against its own citizens.
“According to Hanegbi, residents of Tel Aviv are off-limits, but the southern residents are fair game,” Gabbay said in a statement. “A government with no values that distinguishes between its citizens needs to go home.”
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called Hanegbi’s distinction a “moral outrage.”
“It’s a moral outrage and a disgrace to security,” Lapid tweeted. “Gaza-area residents may be boring to Netanyahu, bu they are citizens and they deserve to be protected from rockets.”
In the radio interview, Hanegbi also weighed in on Liberman’s abrupt resignation in protest of Netanyahu’s decision to accept an Egypt-brokered ceasefire that brought an end to the violence.
He slammed fellow minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett for threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless he was given the defense portfolio in the wake of Liberman’s departure.
“Being appointed a senior position by issuing a violent dictate to the prime minister goes against the concept of a coalition partnership,” he said.
Hangebi said that while he believed himself to be “more suitable for the job than others,” Netanyahu would most likely keep the defense portfolio for himself.
“From what I know about the prime minister, he does not like to give up [control],” he told the radio station.
Earlier on Thursday, Liberman officially tendered his resignation, and was holding his final meetings at the defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is also quitting Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving the premier with only a two-seat advantage over the opposition in parliament and throwing his government into turmoil.
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.