Rockets fired from Gaza as Netanyahu faces backlash

Israeli PM Netanyahu says rockets fired from Gaza at his campaign rally prove Hamas is scared of his victory, as Palestinian officials decry his annexation promise as "worse than apartheid."

JERUSALEM - Several rockets were fired Wednesday from the Gaza Strip at Israel, which responded by striking Hamas military positions in the enclave, the Israeli army said.

The afternoon exchange came a day after rockets fired from the Palestinian territory towards the Israeli city of Ashdod forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to flee the stage during a campaign rally.

They also came a day after Netanyahu swore to annex a large part of the illegally occupied West Bank if Israeli voters reelect him in September 17 parliamentary polls.

"Three projectiles were launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel," the Israeli army said in a statement, adding that sirens were triggered in nearby Israeli communities.

In response, it added, a "tank struck two Hamas military posts in the northern Gaza Strip."

The strikes were confirmed by a security source in Gaza, which is controlled by Islamist movement Hamas.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries.

Overnight Tuesday the Israeli army struck 15 sites it said belonged to Hamas in the northern and central Gaza Strip.

It said the strikes were in response to the rockets fired towards Ashdod which forced Netanyahu to cut short a speech.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Empty declarations

Netanyahu's pledge to annex the Jordan Valley drew praise from right-wing allies on Wednesday, but opponents called it a desperate bid to remain in office.

Netanyahu issued the deeply controversial pledge on Tuesday night, drawing firm condemnation from the Palestinians, Arab states, the United Nations and the European Union.

The prime minister said in a televised speech he would move to annex the strategic valley, which accounts for around a third of the occupied West Bank, if he wins the vote.

He also reiterated his intention to annex Israeli settlements in the wider West Bank, but in coordination with US President Donald Trump, whose long-awaited peace plan is expected to be unveiled sometime after the election.

Taken together, those moves could essentially destroy any remaining hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Any Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdictions and administration in the occupied West Bank is without any international legal effect," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

"Such a prospect would be devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace and the very essence of a two-state solution."

An EU statement said Netanyahu's plans would "undermine the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace."

Palestinian leaders said Netanyahu was destroying any hopes for peace, while senior official Hanan Ashrawi said the plans were "worse than apartheid."

Netanyahu's main opponents in the election, the centrist Blue and White alliance, along with others called the announcement an obvious attempt to win right-wing nationalist votes, which will be key for the premier's Likud party.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has previously spoken of the Jordan Valley remaining under Israeli control forever, but he called Netanyahu's announcement an "empty declaration" that would amount to nothing.

'When it wants'

Politicians from smaller parties on the far-right who are competing with Netanyahu for votes called it too little and too late.

"Why talk about annexation one week before the elections when the government can decide to apply it when it wants, and even today?" said Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich, part of the far-right Yamina alliance in the upcoming vote.

However the Yesha Council, an umbrella organisation for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, said it was a "historic event."

Netanyahu's announcement was only the start of his tense evening, as later on he was hustled off stage at his campaign rally in Ashdod as sirens warning of incoming rockets blared.

Both rockets fired from Gaza were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome air defence system, and Netanyahu later returned to the stage after the all-clear, saying Hamas was scared of him winning the election.

The Jordan Valley accounts for around one-third of the West Bank and Israeli right-wing politicians have long viewed the strategic area as a part of the territory they would never retreat from, seeing it as the country's eastern border.

Israeli settlements are located in what is known as Area C of the West Bank, which accounts for some 60 percent of the territory, including the vast majority of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu said his annexation plans would not include Palestinian cities, such as the Jordan Valley's Jericho, though it would be encircled by Israeli territory.

Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967 in a move never recognised by the international community.

Its settlements there are considered illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace as they are built on land the Palestinian see as part of their future state.

Israel says the Jordan Valley is vital to its security.