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Israel reaches crossroads in Gaza

Many politicians agree that it's time for Israel to rethink its policy toward the Strip.

Israel’s Security Cabinet agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas late on May 20. The decision came just hours after US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone for the fourth time since the Gaza escalation started. The news stations, broadcasting continuously since the beginning of Operation Guardian of the Walls, reported that Biden was heavily pressuring Netanyahu to stop the fighting.

Unlike in earlier rounds of fighting against Hamas, this time, there was almost universal agreement among Israeli commentators, military experts, the public and politicians that Israel's policy toward its enemy must evolve.

Netanyahu has been known as Mr. Security, presenting himself as Israel's top expert on defense and Iran. But in the current atmosphere, with so many buildings hit by Hamas rockets, his branding has become a political weakness. Netanyahu’s opponents are trying to offer alternatives to his Gaza policy. Some argue that Israel should strengthen the Palestinian Authority while others argue the strikes on Gaza should continue.

“We must create a situation in which Gaza residents have something to lose, like the Lebanese model,” opposition chair Yair Lapid posted on Facebook yesterday. Lapid said, “The main reason that Hezbollah — a terror organization much stronger than Hamas — avoids direct confrontations with us is the fact that during the Second Lebanon War, we attacked the Lebanese infrastructure mercilessly. [Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan] Nasrallah knows that if he enters into confrontation with us, then Beirut’s harbor, air force, local industries and commercial centers will go up in smoke, literally.”

According to Lapid, a similar model can be created in Gaza. Israel must be determined and fearless when it employs force against Hamas, but also make clear to the Gaza population that it has much to lose by enabling Hamas to continue ruling the Strip. Israel must give Gazans a reason to stop the next conflict, he argues.  

New Hope party chair Gideon Saar strongly criticized the truce and tweeted, “Stopping the fighting against Hamas unilaterally will deal a harsh blow to Israeli deterrence against Hamas, and not only Hamas. Stopping Israel’s military activity without putting limitations on Hamas’ rearming and mobilization and without mandating the return of our soldiers and civilians held in Gaza will be a diplomatic failure we will pay for in the future.”

Yisrael Beitenu chair Avigdor Liberman attacked Netanyahu, tweeting, “A cease-fire? How about a cease-cash?” He was referring to money from Qatar given to Hamas ostensibly for humanitarian needs, with Israel’s agreement — even though some of the money is clearly used to strengthen Hamas. Netanyahu is accused of isolating and weakening the Palestinian Authority while allowing Hamas to grow stronger.

Lapid, Saar and Liberman were supposed to serve as high-level ministers in the new government, so their stances on Gaza are important. Israel’s military experts agree that the only way to bring Hamas down is to conquer the Strip. However, virtually no mainstream politician advocates such action because of the high price that would include heavy losses of Israeli soldiers and then having to rule over 2 million people in Gaza.

More than 15 years have passed since Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in the summer of 2005 while evacuating its settlements and armed forces. Hamas has only grown stronger since. Every few years, Israel has engaged in military campaigns against Hamas with significant losses under ever less favorable conditions.

In order to understand these endless rounds of fighting, we need to return to 2005 and the disengagement plan initiated by late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The daring plan was intended to disengage Israel from the Strip entirely in the hope that terrorism from Gaza would cease. Israel's withdrawal from the Strip presented an opportunity for the Palestinians to create a government of their own. However, half a year after the disengagement, Hamas won the parliamentary elections, took over the Strip and began its military buildup.

After the disengagement, Israel’s first significant bout of fighting there came in the winter of 2008. By that time, Hamas had rockets that reached the large cities in Israel’s south, including Ashdod, Beersheba and Ashkelon. The political leadership then included Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, all from the center-left and promoting the two-state solution.

The military campaign continued for three weeks. A few months after a cease-fire was achieved, Benjamin Netanyahu rose to power. Since then, Netanyahu has been responsible for policy regarding Gaza. However, over the years he has focused more on Iranian nuclearization and countering Iran’s influence over Syria.

In 2014, Netanyahu found himself dragged into a large military operation in Gaza. This operation lasted 51 days and claimed the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers and citizens. Gaza was hit, thousands of people lost their lives, but even afterward, Netanyahu took no diplomatic steps nor changed his military approach. Also, four years of Donald Trump in the White House removed the pressure that the United States had wielded over Israel during Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency. Just this past summer, when normalization agreements were signed between Gulf countries and Israel, it seemed that Netanyahu had succeeded in changing the adage that such progress could only be achieved after an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

But then Hamas made a comeback. Two weeks ago, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem, followed by attacks on Tel Aviv. Riots engulfed Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities and Lebanon heated up.

This last flare-up in Gaza is viewed by many experts and politicians as a wake-up call for Israel that something important has changed and that new policies are needed. If fifth elections are announced, the Palestinian issue will once again take over the political agenda.

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