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Israel begins construction of Gaza barrier

JERUSALEM: Israel said yesterday that work to strengthen its border with the Gaza Strip had entered a new phase, with construction starting on a massive new barrier along the frontier. “Over the weekend we began building the above-ground barrier along the Gaza border,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told journalists before the weekly cabinet meeting. The barrier, set to stand six meters off the ground, “will prevent terrorists from Gaza from penetrating into our territory on the ground”, he said in Hebrew.

TEL AVIV: A giant election billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump shaking hands is seen yesterday. The writing on the billboard reads in Hebrew “Netanyahu. In another league”. – AFP

Netanyahu gave no further details but a defense ministry statement said that work on the structure began Thursday. It is set to follow the 65-km course of an underground barrier also under construction meant to neutralize the threat of cross-border tunnels built by Gaza militants. At its western end, the statement said, the above-ground barrier would join a fortified sea wall jutting into the Mediterranean, aimed at blocking Palestinian attacks by water. “It’s massive and especially strong,” the ministry said in an accompanying video clip.

In the last Gaza war in 2014, Israeli forces killed four Hamas militants who had managed to cross into Israel by water. Some Israeli commentators have said that Netanyahu would be unwilling to see a new uptick in hostilities with Gaza’s Hamas rulers in the run-up to general elections set for April 9. But the premier, who is also defense minister, yesterday pledged the upcoming polls would not affect security decisions. “If the quiet is not maintained in Gaza, we will make the decisions even in the elections period and will not hesitate to act,” he said.

Palestinians have for nearly a year gathered at least weekly along the Gaza border for often-violent protests. They want to be able to return to the homes their families fled in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, and are calling for an end to the Jewish state’s blockade of Gaza. At least 246 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since March 30, the majority during border protests but also by tank fire and airstrikes. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.

Meanwhile, a giant billboard of a smiling US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu loomed over a main entrance to Tel Aviv yesterday, part of the Israeli leader’s re-election campaign. Trump is popular in Israel because of his tough policies towards the Palestinians and Iran and his transfer last May of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he recognized as Israel’s capital in a break from long-standing US policy.

“Netanyahu. In another league,” read the Hebrew-language billboard, in a swipe at the caliber of the veteran prime minister’s opponents in the April 9 national election. A spokesman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, whose logo adorns the sign over Tel Aviv’s busy Ayalon highway, did not immediately respond to a Reuters query on whether the White House had authorized it to use the photograph. Photos of the billboard have been trending on social media networks.

Netanyahu is favorite to win the election but opinion polls show one of his toughest challengers, former general Benny Gantz, making gains. The prime minister is facing possible charges in three graft cases. He denies any wrongdoing and has called the investigations a witch-hunt. On Friday, Israel’s attorney general said there was no legal reason to prevent him from announcing, before the election, any intention to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges should he decide such a move was warranted. Formal indictment in court would depend on pretrial hearings, likely to be held only after the poll. – Agencies

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