Visiting Gaza border towns, opposition leaders push tougher response to attacks

Zionist Union, Yesh Atid party heads say cabinet failing to maintain Israeli deterrence, call to hit Hamas hard; President Rivlin urges faith in political and military leadership

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay in Ashkelon, November 12, 2018. (Ra'anan Cohen)
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay in Ashkelon, November 12, 2018. (Ra'anan Cohen)

The leaders of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid visited Israeli towns in the Gaza border region Tuesday, calling on the government to take a tougher line against terror groups in the Strip following a day of relentless rocket bombardment from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Visiting the southern town of Ashkelon after residents spent much of the night in bomb shelters, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “failing to restore calm” amid an escalation in rocket fire from Gaza.

“Netanyahu transferred millions of dollars to Hamas and we received rocket fire all over the south,” Gabbay charged, referring to the $15 million cash infusion to Gaza from Qatar that Israel had permitted over the weekend amid efforts to secure a long-term truce.

Standing outside a house that was struck by a rocket overnight, Gabbay said the government lacked a “long-term plan” to end the conflict with Hamas and was being “dragged along” by events.

“Transferring money to terrorists is not a plan,” he said. “The government is failing to restore calm.”

Gabbay said Israel must take a two-pronged approach to Gaza: “Strike Hamas hard with one hand, but with the other search for a diplomatic solution that will put an end to this escalation.”

Meanwhile Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid said any accord with Hamas should only be reached “after deterrence is restored.”

Yesh Atid part leader Yair Lapid (center) tours a community in the Gaza periphery, November 13, 2018 (Courtesy Yesh Atid)

Lapid said the government’s one job “is to ensure quiet for the children” of the Gaza periphery, “to ensure quiet for the south, and this can only be done after deterrence is renewed.”

Lapid toured several communities including Kibbutz Nahal Oz and the town of Sderot. He too criticized leadership’s response to the ongoing rocket barrages.

“We can’t have Hamas running us. What we are seeing at the moment isn’t policy. It’s not government,” he said.

“The prime minister said a few days ago in Paris that there is no solution for Gaza,” Lapid said, apparently misquoting Netanyahu’s statement in Paris on Sunday that “there is no diplomatic solution for Gaza, just as there is no diplomatic solution for ISIS.”

“That’s unprecedented, for a prime minister to say there’s no solution, when thousands of our children in the Gaza periphery are in bomb shelters, and in the media we see [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh walking around freely in the streets of Gaza. There is a solution: to hit Gaza’s terrorists hard. Only after that strike, only after we regain deterrence, can we go back to talking about an agreement,” Lapid said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a press conference in Paris, France, on November 11, 2018. (screen capture: GPO)

Members of the left-wing Meretz party faction also toured the Gaza periphery, with legislators meeting local residents and leaders.

“We can’t have another war,” Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said. “War means more dead soldiers and more children in shelters, and in the end we’ll be back where we started. The government must do everything to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible and then move toward a greater diplomatic solution.”

On Monday Zandberg censured Gabbay and Lapid for “joining the war-mongers” after they criticized Netanyahu for allegedly not taking a tough enough stance on Hamas, and effectively baiting him to go to war.

“It is tempting to attack Bibi’s hypocrisy regarding Hamas,” Zandberg told reporters ahead of her Knesset faction meeting, using a nickname for the prime minister. “Indeed Lapid and Gabbay did not resist the temptation, joining the warmongers and trying to attack him from the right.”

Leader of the Meretz party MK Tamar Zandberg attends during a joint Knesset and Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset, July 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Visiting the southern city of Netivot, President Reuven Rivlin expressed solidarity with the beleaguered residents.

“I have said in the past and I will continue to say, the area around Gaza is the whole of Israel. When the sirens are screaming here, we hear them in our hearts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and all over the country,” the president told residents.

“We must give the political and military leadership the breathing room and space to lead us in this conflict,” Rivlin urged. “Our responsibility is for the safety of our citizens and the routine of daily life, and then the safety of our soldiers.”

“We are all together in this conflict, and we need to trust the commanders of the IDF who are leading us with courage, confidence, clarity and responsibility,” he said.

Culture Minister Miri Regev of Likud also toured rocket-hit communities Tuesday, and thanked them for “standing strong.” She said Israel will “act with any force necessary to maintain the IDF’s deterrence and the security of Israeli citizens.”

On Monday and Tuesday, more than 400 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing at least one person — a Palestinian man living in Israel with a work permit — and injuring dozens more.

It appeared to be the largest-ever number of projectiles fired at Israel from the coastal enclave in a 24-hour period, more than twice the number fired on any day of the 2014 Gaza war, according to Israeli statistics.

In response to the relentless rocket fire from Gaza, the Israeli military launched a series of ground, air and naval strikes at over 150 targets in the Strip connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus.

A ball of fire above the building housing the Hamas-run television station al-Aqsa TV in the Gaza Strip during an Israeli air strike, November 12, 2018, – (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP)

This included key strategic assets like the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television station, which Israel says is used to direct and support terror attacks, the spokesman said.

On Tuesday, Egyptian intelligence officials and United Nations Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov scrambled to broker a ceasefire between the two sides.

Palestinian media outlets reported that terror groups in the Gaza Strip had agreed to halt their attacks on southern Israel beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the request of Egypt.

But news of the alleged ceasefire was accompanied by a salvo of rockets fired at the Hof Ashkelon and Sha’ar Hanegev regions of southern Israel.

One of the projectiles directly hit a home in Hof Ashkelon, causing significant damage to the building, but no injuries, according to the local government.

The security cabinet convened in the morning at the Defense Ministry’s Tel Aviv headquarters for a marathon meeting, after which ministers said airstrikes in Gaza would continue “as needed.”

Judah Ari Gross and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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