When the war Cabinet of the most right-wing government in all of Israel’s history met on the evening of Aug. 9, only one minister supported an extensive military operation in the Gaza Strip. That was Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman, and even he — it is thought — did so mainly as a matter of protocol, because he had no choice politically. Liberman knew that he would remain conspicuously isolated on this issue, so he allowed himself to push for a military operation, when even ministers on the far right — Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — agreed that it did not stand a chance.
It was one of those rare occasions in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not align himself with his right-wing electoral base. Instead he and his Cabinet decided not to order the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to launch a wide-scale operation in Gaza. With the backing of the defense establishment and most of his ministers, he chose to wait until midnight, when an official cease-fire was scheduled to go into effect. Meanwhile, Hamas was sending messages through Egypt, as well as through UN emissary Nickolay Mladenov, that the current round of hostilities had already worn itself out, and that it had no interest in any further escalation. That was how several “minor” rounds of hostilities began and ended over the past few weeks. Both parties would engage in fairly tame exchanges and then pull back at the very last minute, before the situation deteriorated into a full-blown campaign.
Even the most right-wing government since the founding of the State of Israel is aware of the limitation of its own strength. Furthermore, there is no one to prod it to fulfill Netanyahu’s campaign promise to bring down the Hamas regime and clean up the hornet’s nest that is the Gaza Strip. Sometimes reality is stronger than ideology. Hamas is currently at its historic nadir and weaker than it has ever been. It is precisely because of this that Israel has a distinct advantage. Hamas simply has nothing to lose, while Israel does.
The Gaza imbroglio is complicated, even by Middle Eastern standards. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are still caught up in an arm-wrestling match, with no winner in sight. The PA insists on “all or nothing.” President Mahmoud Abbas also wants to discuss disarming Hamas, but Hamas won’t hear of it. Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas are having a separate row over the return of the corpses of two IDF soldiers, being held in Gaza. Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar is demanding Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the bodies, but there is no one in Israel who supports this demand. The Egyptians are trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole, but they also insist on blocking the Qatari axis — which also includes Iran and Turkey — that has been funding the Gaza Strip for the past two years.
Everyone knows that the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Gaza will eventually lead to a blowup, but so far no one has found a formula to funnel money and resources into Gaza while circumventing Hamas. The PA is unwilling to be the conduit, the Egyptians will not allow it to be Qatar and the Israelis refuse to allow money to flow directly to Hamas, since that would prove terrorism does, indeed, pay.
Meanwhile, Hamas has found the precise Archimedean focal point that allows it to continue balancing on the edge of the abyss without tumbling down into it. Ever since March, when the “Great Return March” began, the organization has suffered over 200 fatalities because of Israeli reactions, with thousands more injured Gazans lying in local hospitals. And still, the system did not collapse. Sinwar and head of Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh both know that in the kind of campaign Israel might wage, they could suffer the kind of damage that Gaza could not absorb without falling to pieces. That's why they put together their current strategy, which began with the marches and continues with incendiary kites and balloons. Its purpose is to pester Israel on a daily basis without creating the critical mass that would force the Netanyahu government to take its gloves off and shatter all the pieces in this game — and a few bones as well.
On Aug. 9, the IDF obliterated a five-story building right in the middle of the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. At the same time, Israel prepared plans that would immediately renew a campaign of targeted assassinations against the leaders of Hamas in Gaza. It was part of an Israeli attempt to skip right to the end games of Operation Protective Edge, four years ago this summer. Back then, the leaders of Hamas realized that the time had come to finish up, only after the IDF began bringing down multi-story buildings in the Rimal neighborhood, where leaders of Hamas and their inner circle live in relative comfort.
Once again, the destruction of the building in Rimal marked the beginning of the end. Unlike August 2014, however, no one now expects four years of quiet. The launching of incendiary kites was renewed the very next morning, so Netanyahu and his ministers descended into their political bunker to try to minimize the damage. Liberman and the other ministers had a tough weekend. Not only is their right-wing base furious at them, so is the media and the general public, given the fact that on the evening of Aug. 9 the government denied adamantly that it was heading toward a cease-fire, only to have such a cease-fire as a fait accompli the following morning. “At least tell us the truth,” raged the public against the Netanyahu government’s cowardly unwillingness to stand behind the situation and admit to it.
What will happen in the next round of fighting, which can break out just as easily in the next few moments as in the next few weeks? Just a few weeks ago, Bennett offered the Cabinet plans for a new military operation. Bennett, who once pushed for an operation to destroy the terror tunnels during Operation Protective Edge, has no plans now to send entire brigades of combat troops into Gaza and bury dozens of soldiers, only to end up at the exact same starting point.
Bennett’s plan includes the widespread evacuation of Israeli localities along the Gaza border, so as to avoid civilian casualties. This would be followed by massive airstrikes on Hamas and Islamic Jihad infrastructures. Launched at maximal force, these would last several weeks, until the two groups were obliterated entirely. It is believed that Israel has enough intelligence and that the Israeli air force has the skills to attack with surgical precision and take everything from Hamas: its command centers, bases, positions, factories, bunkers, infrastructures, arms depots and most of all its rockets. Hamas now has over 10,000 rockets, and Bennett claims that Israel can destroy the overwhelming majority of them. This would result in the de facto disarmament of the Gaza Strip and bring Hamas to its knees. Bennett also claims that the plan can be carried out at minimal cost to Israel.
Right now, the chances of this plan being accepted and adopted by the Cabinet remain unclear. There will be opposition to the mass evacuation of localities, since this runs counter to the Zionist ethos, and will grant Hamas some image of victory, at least externally. At the same time, however, opposition to the plan has been diminishing. Should the situation deteriorate any further, and that is quite possible, the plan could very well be implemented, if only because there is no alternative.
However, as long as Netanyahu and Liberman stick to their strategic objective of leaving Hamas in power in the Gaza Strip, any genuine strategic move to instigate real change does not stand a chance, regardless of whether such a move is designed to lead to peace or to war.
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