(Updates with poll in fourth paragraph. For more on the Gaza conflict, see EXTR <GO>.)
Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back at critics of his decision to end Gaza Strip fighting, saying his country’s offensive scored a political and military victory.
“We can’t say definitively that the goal of bringing sustained quiet has been reached, but the goal of hitting Hamas hard has been achieved,” Netanyahu told a news conference late yesterday at his office in Jerusalem. The premier has been criticized by both allies and opponents for accepting an Egyptian-brokered truce that detractors say doesn’t assure Israel’s security.
The Aug. 26 cease-fire halted seven weeks of fighting that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 70 on the Israeli side, according to official tallies. It envisages easing curbs on Gaza’s border with Israel, letting in reconstruction materials and aid, and extending fishing zones off the territory’s coast, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said. Israel hasn’t commented on the terms. Talks on other issues, brokered by Egypt, are due to resume in a month.
Netanyahu enjoyed broad public support during the war. A day after the fighting ended, both political allies and residents of Israel’s rocket-scarred south were making their displeasure known. A Dialog poll published today in the Ha’aretz newspaper showed that 54 percent of Israelis say the war had no clearcut winner. The poll of 464 people yesterday had a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.
“We’ve made it look like Israel is willing to accept quiet at any price,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, speaking on Israel Radio yesterday. “We didn’t achieve the basic goals we set out to do,” said Landau, one of several ministers who had called for a broader ground offensive to topple Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Netanyahu had set a more modest goal of restoring security.
The cease-fire deal was also slammed by some local officials in southern Israel, which bore the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza. Thousands of Israelis left their homes in southern Israel during the fighting for safer areas. While many returned, Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council near the Gaza border, told Israel Radio yesterday that he wouldn’t urge people to return immediately, saying he had “lost faith in the government.”
Zehava Gal-On, leader of the dovish opposition party Meretz, said the same agreements could have been reached through negotiations with the Palestinians. On her Facebook page yesterday, she called the truce “a strategic failure on the part of Netanyahu, who went to war without clear objectives and ended it by delivering a tremendous achievement to Hamas on the backs of the residents of the south.”
Like Netanyahu, Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, has also been claiming victory. Shortly before the premier spoke, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh appeared in Gaza for the first time since going into hiding when the conflict started July 8. He told thousands of supporters at a rally that “the armed Palestinian resistance gained the admiration of the entire world and surprised Israel.”
As part of his postwar program, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 15 to set a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967 that the Palestinians claim for a state. The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 while retaining control of shared border crossings.
If this resolution is vetoed, the Palestinians will ask to join the International Criminal Court to press war crimes charges, foremost against Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, senior Palestinian official Nabil Sha’ath was quoted as saying by the Palestinian news agency Ma’an today.
Netanyahu said he decided to stop the war “to save lives and prevent Hamas from killing or abducting soldiers,” after Israeli forces had destroyed tunnels used by Gaza militants to smuggle goods and stage attacks.
He also said the war has “created a new diplomatic horizon,” with more Arab states sharing Israeli concerns about Islamist militants. “We will definitely attempt to advance those possibilities,” Netanyahu said.
In 50 days of fighting, Israel struck 5,226 targets, and militants fired 4,591 rockets at Israeli communities. The Palestinian dead included hundreds of women and children, and thousands of homes and businesses, as well as utilities, medical centers and mosques, were destroyed or heavily damaged, according to Gaza officials. Almost all the Israeli dead were soldiers, and the Iron Dome missile-defense system intercepted 735 rockets headed for built-up areas, according to the army.
Estimates for repairing the damage wrought in Gaza by the war have ranged as high as $8 billion. The conflict has hurt the Israeli economy, too, with the drop in tourism and consumer spending prompting the central bank to unexpectedly cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low this week.
The number of visitors to Israel shrank by 26 percent in July from a year earlier. Even before the fighting erupted, economic growth was down to an annualized 1.7 percent in the second quarter, from 2.8 percent in the previous three months.