Israel Pulse

Has Israel’s defense minister changed approach on Hamas?

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Article Summary
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman estimates that provoking Hamas and generating a military confrontation with the group does not serve Israel’s security interest.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman convened a press conference on July 15, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, attacking what he perceived as the weakness of the government of which he was a member. “We should conquer Gaza,” he said in a confident tone. “We can’t contemplate and hesitate all the time. This hesitation works against us. We have to go all the way. There is no other alternative here.”

Liberman already called to conquer the Gaza Strip and topple the Hamas government back in June 2013, in response to rocket fire from Gaza. “There will not be a choice; what is needed is to seriously consider conquering Gaza and carry out a thorough cleansing,” he said in a radio interview. “Today there are hundreds of factories there working to develop and manufacture weapons, not to improve the quality of life or develop a civilian industry but to develop weapons.”

In the election campaign for the 20th Knesset, Liberman started a campaign to be appointed defense minister. In a tour of the area surrounding the Gaza Strip, looking out at Gaza from afar, he said [in March 2015], “When I’m defense minister, Hamas’ end will come.” 

And one can’t forget his statement two days before he was appointed defense minister in May 2016, when he threatened then-Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the course of an event in the southern city of Beersheba. “I’m telling you, and you can catch me at my word,” Liberman turned to the interviewer, “everything is recorded here. When I’m defense minister, I give Mr. Haniyeh 48 hours. Either you return the bodies and civilians or you die. As far as I’m concerned, just reserve a spot at the closest cemetery.” 

Two days later, Liberman was appointed defense minister in Netanyahu’s government and abandoned his threat. When he was confronted with his words in March 2017, Liberman responded, “Talk to me at the end of my term.” 

These days Liberman is dealing with a security challenge that is not so simple, like defense ministers who served before him. They, like he, tried to find an efficient solution to the threat of rockets from Gaza. Since US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Dec. 6, dozens of rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. 

On Dec. 29, three rockets were fired toward Kibbutz Kfar Aza during a ceremony marking the 24th birthday of Oron Shaul, the soldier whose body has been held by Hamas since Operation Protective Edge. The rocket fire disrupted the ceremony and its participants had to take shelter when a code red alarm went off. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates that the rockets were launched by Islamic Jihad militants, who knew about the ceremony and in firing on it wished to respond to the killing of their men in a tunnel bombed by the IDF in October 2017. Miraculously, no one was hurt in this incident: The Iron Dome anti-missile defense system intercepted two rockets and a third hit a building in the area. 

The IDF’s response to the rocket fire was feeble. The IDF spokesman announced that a short time after the rocket fire, tanks and air force planes struck at two Hamas positions in the north of Gaza. This time the voice of Defense Minister Liberman was hardly heard, and he did not repeat his calls from the past to conquer Gaza and eliminate the leaders of Hamas. 

Liberman reached the height of cynicism when he mocked Zionist Camp leader Avi Gabbay, who attacked the defense minister’s restrained approach and demanded to return quiet to the south. In a radio interview, Gabbay said, “The defense minister has become a military analyst; he says that this involves conflict among the Palestinian factions and so claims that we haven’t lost our deterrence capabilities. In my opinion, we have lost our deterrence.” 

Liberman subsequently accused the opposition of trying to drag the IDF into a military campaign. “At least for now, I don’t think a general operation in Gaza against Hamas fits the Israeli security interest,” said Liberman. “Hamas has no interest in a general war. Those who try to drag us into that are all sorts of Salafist groups, and I saw that some of our opposition leaders are interested in the same thing.”

Liberman, who until his appointment as defense minister treated Hamas as a terror organization that must be toppled and whose leaders must be eliminated, now understands, by virtue of his role, the extent to which things are complicated. He even understands Hamas’ difficulties in trying to stop the rocket fire from Salafist or Islamic Jihad groups. 

On Jan. 4, he sent messages to Hamas by means of an interview for the website of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Al-Munsak. From what he said, we can see that Liberman Model 2018 even recognizes the sovereignty of Hamas over the Gaza Strip. “We suggest that the leaders of the government in Gaza get it together and clean house. As far as we are concerned, there is one address, and those who claim to govern Gaza will also bear responsibility,” Liberman said.

He added that Israel knows exactly who fired the rockets during the ceremony in Kfar Aza. “It’s Islamic Jihad,” Liberman determined. He didn’t threaten to eliminate the rocket launchers but only asked Hamas to “take responsibility and clean house.” 

The politician who was prepared to lead Israel into a bloody adventure conquering the Gaza Strip, without considering the hundreds or thousands of victims the operation would have exacted, now suggests that Hamas leaders “get it together.” It’s interesting to consider what Haniyeh thinks about the messages from the man who now sits in the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. 

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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