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Netanyahu disciplines Israeli minister who voiced openness to hypothetical nuclear option in Gaza

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday (Nov 5) disciplined a junior member of his cabinet who appeared to voice openness to the idea of Israel carrying out a nuclear strike on Gaza, where the war with Hamas is inflicting a spiralling Palestinian civilian toll.

Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that the minister concerned – Heritage Minister Amihay Eliyahu, from a far-right party in the coalition government – had been suspended from cabinet meetings “until further notice”.

Asked in a radio interview about a hypothetical nuclear option, Eliyahu had replied: “That’s one way.” His remark made headlines in Arab media, scandalised mainstream Israeli broadcasters and was deemed “objectionable” by a US official.

Neither Eliyahu or his party leader are in the streamlined ministerial forum running the Gaza war. Neither would they have inside knowledge of Israel’s nuclear capabilities – which it does not publicly acknowledge – or the power to activate them.

“Eliyahu’s statements are not based in reality. Israel and the IDF (military) are operating in accordance with the highest standards of international law to avoid harming innocents. We will continue to do so until our victory,” Netanyahu’s office said.

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About 9,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, stirring widening international concern at Israel’s tactics.

The crisis prompted another troubleshooting visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend.

“Obviously that was an objectionable statement and the prime minister made very clear that he (Eliyahu) wasn’t speaking on behalf of the government,” a senior US State Department official said.

Eliyahu said in a social media post: “It is clear to anyone who is sensible that the nuclear remark was metaphorical.”

But he added: “A strong and disproportionate response to terrorism is definitely required, which will clarify to the Nazis and their supporters that terrorism is not worthwhile.”

A spokesperson for Hamas, a militant group that advocates Israel’s destruction, said Eliyahu represented the “unprecedented criminal Israeli terrorism (that) constitutes a danger to the entire region and the world”.

In Eliyahu’s Kol Barama radio interview, it was noted that ravaging Gaza would endanger about 240 hostages – among them foreigners as well as Israelis – held since Hamas sparked the war with an Oct 7 cross-border assault that killed 1,400 people.

“In war, you pay a price,” the minister responded, while adding that he was praying for the hostages’ return.

Benny Gantz, a centrist ex-general who joined the conservative Netanyahu from the opposition in the streamlined war cabinet, said Eliyahu’s remarks had been damaging “and, even worse, added to the pain of the hostages’ families at home”. 

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