Israel’s Netanyahu under fire at home

GAZA/JERUSALEM: An open-ended cease-fire in the Gaza war held on Wednesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced strong criticism in Israel over a costly conflict with Palestinian fighters in which no clear victor emerged.

On the streets of the battered, Hamas-run Palestinian enclave, people headed to shops and banks, trying to resume the normal pace of life after seven weeks of fighting. Thousands of others, who had fled the battles and sheltered with relatives or in schools, returned home, where some found only rubble.

In Israel, sirens warning of incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip fell silent, but media commentators, echoing attacks by members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, voiced deep disappointment over his leadership during the most prolonged bout of Israeli-Palestinian violence in a decade.

Many people on both sides of the conflict wondered what was gained during 50 days of fighting.

The Gaza war — the 3rd round of fighting since Hamas seized power in 2007 — left more than 2,200 people dead, caused widespread destruction in the densely populated coastal territory, and paralyzed large parts of southern Israel during much of the summer.

“After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organization (sic) killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine (and) placed the country in a state of economic distress … we could have expected much more than an announcement of a cease-fire,” analyst Shimon Shiffer wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper.

“We could have expected the prime minister to go to the President’s Residence and inform him of his decision to resign his post.”

Netanyahu, who has faced constant sniping in his Cabinet from right-wing ministers demanding military action to topple Hamas, made no immediate comment on the Egyptian-mediated truce deal that took effect on Tuesday evening.

Palestinian health officials say 2,139 people, most of them civilians, including more than 490 children, have been killed in the enclave since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive with the declared aim of ending rocket salvoes.

Israel’s death toll stood at 64 soldiers and six civilians.

The cease-fire agreement called for an indefinite halt to hostilities, the immediate opening of Gaza’s blockaded crossings with Israel and Egypt, and a widening of the territory’s fishing zone in the Mediterranean.

A senior Hamas official voiced willingness for the security forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government he formed in June to control the passage points.

Both Israel and Egypt view Hamas as a security threat and are seeking guarantees that weapons will not enter the territory of 1.8 million people. Under a second stage of the truce that would begin a month later, Israel and the Palestinians would discuss the construction of a Gaza sea port and Israel’s release of Hamas prisoners in the occupied West Bank, possibly in a trade for the remains of two Israeli soldiers believed held by Hamas, the officials said.

Israel has in recent weeks said it wants the full demilitarization of Gaza. The United States and European Union have supported the goal, but it remains unclear what it would mean in practice and Hamas has rejected it as unfeasible.

“On the land of proud Gaza, the united people achieved absolute victory against the Zionist enemy,” a Hamas statement said.

Israel said it dealt a strong blow to Hamas, killing several of its military leaders and destroying the Islamist group’s cross-border infiltration tunnels.

“Hamas’s military wing was badly hit, we know this clearly through unequivocal intelligence,” Yossi Cohen, Netanyahu’s national security adviser, said on Army Radio.

But Israel also faced persistent rocket fire for nearly two months that caused an exodus from a number of border communities and became part of daily life in its commercial heartland.

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