Netanyahu rival says Israel too soft as Gaza on verge of war

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 2018.


By JONATHAN FERZIGER AND MICHAEL S. ARNOLD | Bloomberg | Published: October 20, 2018

International mediators struggled to prevent unrest on the Gaza border from erupting into war as a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet said Israel should shoot to kill any Palestinian who tries to break through the border fence.

Naftali Bennett, Israel's education minister and leader of the religious Jewish Home party, spoke in an interview as seven months of confrontation in Gaza threaten to deteriorate into all-out war. After a Palestinian rocket destroyed a home Wednesday in the Israeli city of Beersheba and another landed in the sea near Tel Aviv, Israeli fighter jets struck military targets across the territory.

"We haven't shown enough of a steel fist there," Bennett, a longtime political rival within Netanyahu's governing coalition, said Tuesday at his Tel Aviv office. "We've been mighty soft on the fence, and that softness invites an increase in attacks."

Egyptian and United Nations diplomats were in Gaza on Wednesday to try to broker an agreement that would prevent the current round of violence from boiling over. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars over the past decade, most recently in 2014, that have left thousands of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis dead.

Israeli politicians have been jockeying to see who can talk toughest against Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers as speculation swells about early elections. Violence from Gaza has grown since a campaign of mass protests against Israel was launched in late March. Bennett criticized Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman this month, saying his policies had failed and were jeopardizing residents of Israel's south.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, said Bennett was effectively advocating war crimes.

"He's asking to shoot more and commit more war crimes," Tibi said in a text message.

The Gaza protest campaign has included frequent attempts to cut through the 10-foot (3-meter) wire fence to enter Israel. Gaza residents have sent flaming balloons and kites over the border, setting fire to thousands of acres of forest and agricultural land, and militants in the strip fire rockets at Israeli towns from time to time.

Israeli snipers deployed on the border have killed more than 200 Palestinians, including seven last weekend, and injured thousands. One Israeli soldier was also killed by sniper fire from Gaza.

Israel's approach to Gaza should be, "Get the hell out of our territory," Bennett said. "Stop infiltrating Israel, and if you do infiltrate, you're risking your life."

At an Oct. 13 funeral for a man killed by Israeli troops, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on Palestinians to keep fighting until the blockade against Gaza is lifted.

"The blood of the martyrs brings us closer to victory over the Zionist enemy," he said.

Bennett, 46, who harshly criticized Netanyahu for letting the 2014 war drag on for seven weeks, has pushed for a swift, punishing air campaign focused on destroying Hamas military bases and weapons factories. While members of his party -- many of them former residents of Gaza's Jewish settlements -- advocate reoccupying the territory Israel held for 38 years, Bennett says such a step would be imprudent.

"It would be like putting your hand in a beehive," he said.

Israel's Security Cabinet met about Gaza late into the night Wednesday. Beforehand, Netanyahu threatened a "very painful" response if Hamas didn't curtail its attacks. Liberman said Israel was prepared to strike a "serious blow" that could cripple Hamas' assault capabilities for several years.

Bennett, who's proposed annexing most of the West Bank to Israel while offering the Palestinians "autonomy on steroids," said he would oppose any effort to establish a Palestinian state, even if it's included in President Donald Trump's forthcoming peace plan.

His said his experience as a high-tech executive taught him the value of testing a product through a pilot program, and only then disseminating it more widely. For Palestinian statehood, "we have a pilot. It's called Gaza," Bennett said. "It would be ridiculous - crazy - to have such a failed pilot and then go 'live.' "


Bloomberg's Saud Abu Ramadan contributed to this report.

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