Gaza rocket sirens again send Netanyahu into shelter during campaign rally
Sirens warning of rocket fire from Gaza cut short a campaign rally by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening. It was the second time in recent months that rocket fire interrupted one of his meetings.
On Thursday, the embattled premier will face off against longtime rival Gideon Saar in a Likud party leadership contest that could threaten his grip on power, AFP reported. Last month, Netanyahu was indicted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three corruption cases, allegations he strongly denies.
The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12km from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defence interceptor, according to Reuters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence in November.
Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to retain the helm of the conservative party in an internal election, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded.
It was the second such incident, after a September rally in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren.
Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Bahaa Abu al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod.
"He (al-Atta) is no longer around," a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu saying after he retook the stage in Ashkelon. In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday's attack, he added: "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 a March general election in Israel - its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu's standing has been dented by the indictment on corruption charges.
Netanyahu's failure to stem attacks from Gaza has also been invoked by his political rivals.
"The 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," Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Last week, two rocket attacks were launched against Israel from Gaza without causing injury, Israel's army said. In response, Israeli warplanes twice bombed Hamas installations in the enclave.
Since 2008, Israel has waged three wars against Hamas and its armed allies in Gaza, where two million Palestinians live amid violence, poverty and a 10-year Israeli blockade.
Gaza experienced its most significant conflict in 2014, when at least 2,251 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. At least 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians also lost their lives.
In 2012, the United Nations warned that Gaza would become unlivable by 2020.