A rocket fired by Palestinian-Islamists in Gaza was intercepted by Israel’s air defense systems last night. The Israeli military confirmed the launch toward the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome missile interceptor.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the violence. The Palestinian enclave is controlled by the Islamist Hamas where a smaller armed faction, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month. Israel designates both Hamas and the PIJ as terror groups.
At the time of the attack, Ashkelon was hosting a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As soon as air raid sirens began to blare, the Israeli leader was immediately escorted offstage by bodyguards to a shelter where he briefly remained before resuming the event. Netanyahu was campaigning for leadership of his conservative Likud party, which today held its party primaries. His chief competitor is Knesset Member and former minister Gideon Sa’ar.
The incident marked the second time in recent months that the Israeli Premier was forced to seek shelter from Palestinian missiles. This past September his appearance in the nearby town of Ashdod – also within the range of Gaza rocket fire — was briefly disrupted by air raid sirens. Israel retaliated for that attack with a targeted strike against the PIJ commander Baha Abu Al-Atta in Gaza who had ordered it; subsequently sparking a round of fighting between the side sides in November.
Soon after returning to the stage at yesterday’s event in Ashkelon, a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu being cheered by onlookers as he said “He (Al-Atta) is no longer around.” In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he then underscored: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.”
While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of the 20 March 2020 general election. Israeli constituents will return to the polls for the third time in 11 months, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been tarnished by an indictment on corruption charges which he denies.
Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political competitors. Former IDF Chief of Staff Gantz heads the Blue and White party which presents the most formidable opposition to Prime Minister’s Likud faction.
In a written statement to TV7, Gantz maintained that “This situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the Prime Minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the South – and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept.”
He the vowed, “We will replace the government, change the policy, restore deterrence and bring back quiet to the residents in the South.”