Israel strikes Gaza after rocket sirens force Netanyahu off stage
Israeli aircraft struck in Gaza on Wednesday hours after rockets from the Palestinian enclave triggered sirens that forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu off the stage at an election rally in Israel.
The Israeli military said 15 targets were hit, including a weapons manufacturing facility, a naval compound used by militants and tunnels belonging to Hamas, the dominant armed force in Gaza.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Hours earlier, bodyguards rushed Netanyahu to shelter in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod when the sirens sounded during a Tuesday evening rally, a week ahead of a general election.
Netanyahu was unhurt and several minutes later he continued his speech, which was broadcast live on social media by his right-wing Likud party.
However, the spectacle of the prime minister being forced off the podium added fuel to accusations by political opponents that he has not done enough to halt the frequent cross-border rocket strikes against southern Israel.
The Israeli military said two rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip toward Ashdod and another port city, Ashkelon, just to the south, and were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
It said Wednesday’s strikes in Gaza came in response to the rocket launchings.
There was no immediately claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s rocket attack, which happened shortly after Netanyahu announced a plan to annex part of the occupied West Bank if re-elected in the national ballot on Sept. 17.
Israel seized Gaza in a 1967 war and pulled out its settlers and troops in 2005. It maintains a naval blockade of the enclave and along with Egypt imposes tight restrictions at land borders, citing security concerns.
Hamas and Israel have fought three wars in the past decade.
‘By all available means’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to annex the heart of the West Bank if he wins re-election next week, a move that could inflame the Middle East and extinguish any remaining Palestinian hope of establishing a separate state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said all agreements with Israel will be cancelled if Netanyahu presses forward.
“We have the right to defend our rights and achieve our goals by all available means, whatever the results, as Netanyahu’s decisions contradict the resolutions of international legitimacy and international law,” he said.
Opposition politicians alike criticized Netanyahu for proposing West Bank annexation as part of his campaign. On Twitter, Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, called Netanyahu’s statement “not just election spin” but “a vision of apartheid.” Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who is campaigning to oust Netanyahu, said the prime minister “has no public or moral mandate to determine things so fateful to the state of Israel.”
Locked in a tight race, Netanyahu has resorted to a series of stunts in recent days aimed at drawing attention to his campaign and, critics say, diverting attention from a looming corruption case.
The international community, along with the Palestinians, overwhelmingly considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal.
Netanyahu’s plan would turn Palestinian population centres into enclaves that he said he would seek to link to neighbouring Jordan. Unlike Israeli settlers, West Bank Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and do not have the right to vote.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, condemned the announcement as “a serious escalation that undermines all peace efforts.”
At the United Nations, Secretary General Antonio Guterres also rejected the proposal. “Such a prospect would be devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace and the very essence of a two-state solution,” said UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.
Netanyahu’s challengers accused him of playing politics. Yair Lapid, a leader of the Blue and White party, dismissed it as an “an election stunt.”
During the hard-fought campaign, Netanyahu has alleged fraud in Arab voting areas and has been pushing to place cameras in polling stations on election day. He also claimed to have located a previously unknown Iranian nuclear weapons facility, and later this week he flies to Russia for a lightning meeting with President Vladimir Putin.