ASHDOD, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday announced his intentions to annex the Jordan Valley, a large expanse of the occupied West Bank, if he wins next week’s election in a closely contested race.
A short time later at an election campaign rally in southern Israel, a warning siren for incoming rockets from Gaza forced bodyguards to escort the prime minister quickly off stage.
The event played out on Israeli TV while the gathered audience captured it on cellphones as Netanyahu was taken away quickly.
There were no immediate reports of any rockets exploding in the city of Ashdod, where the event was being held.
Netanyahu’s declaration, earlier Tuesday in a speech broadcast live on Israel’s main TV channels, was reported by many political commentators as a bid to siphon support away from far-right rivals who have long advocated the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Netanyahu promised the annexation would happen “immediately after the election” if he receives a clear mandate to do so by the citizens of Israel.
Around 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers live in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
The main Palestinian city is Jericho, with around 28 villages and smaller communities.
The Jordan Valley, which Palestinians seek for the eastern perimeter of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, stretches from the Dead Sea in the south to the Israeli city of Beit Shean in the north.
The valley accounts for nearly 30% of the territory in the West Bank.
Israel has long said it intends to maintain military control there under any peace agreement with the Palestinians.