September 10, 2019 / 6:33 PM / 10 days ago

Rocket siren forces Israel's Netanyahu off stage at campaign rally

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Bodyguards rushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu off the stage at an election campaign rally in southern Israel on Tuesday after sirens sounded warning of a rocket attack from Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was unhurt and several minutes later he was able to continue his speech, which was broadcast live on social media by his right-wing Likud party.

However, the spectacle of the prime minister being forced off the podium, with an election just a week away, added fuel to accusations by political opponents that he has not done enough to halt frequent cross-border rocket strikes against southern Israel.

The Israeli military said two rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Ashdod, where the campaign event was held, and another port city, Ashkelon, just to the south, and were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

There was no immediately claim of responsibility for the attack, launched shortly after Netanyahu announced a plan to annex part of the occupied West Bank if re-elected in a national ballot on Sept. 17.

“Exit quietly,” Netanyahu told the crowd before his security detail hustled him away, footage from the event showed. Channel 13 television, which also broadcast the incident, said he was taken to a sheltered area.

Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and head of the centrist Blue and White party that is Likud’s strongest challenger, seized on the rocket strike to attack his opponent.

“Big words are replaced with zero action,” Gantz said in a statement, pledging that if he becomes prime minister he will “not tolerate even one rocket”.

Rocket attacks from Gaza rarely cause casualties and Israel usually responds with air strikes against positions controlled by Hamas, the Islamist movement that is the dominant armed force in the territory of two million Palestinians.

Israel seized Gaza in a 1967 war and pulled out its settlers and troops in 2005. It maintains a naval blockade of the enclave and along with Egypt imposes tight restrictions at land borders, citing security concerns.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars in the past decade. Egyptian and Qatari envoys regularly mediate between them to try to prevent further conflict.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones

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