GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinians celebrated the sudden resignation Nov. 14 of hawkish Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, launching spontaneous marches in the Gaza Strip. A senior Hamas official said Liberman's departure could speed up efforts to reach a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel through Egyptian, Qatari and UN mediation.
Liberman resigned a day after Israel and Palestinian armed factions reached a cease-fire agreement, even as an especially fierce and deadly cross-border exchange was taking place, with Palestinian rockets and mortar shells bombarding southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes punishing Gaza. That exchange followed one on Nov. 11, when Hamas detected a special Israeli force trying to carry out a secret mission in eastern Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the cease-fire, but Liberman saw it as conceding to terrorists.
Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told Al-Monitor that Liberman’s resignation was the result of the Israeli army’s many defeats during armed confrontations with Palestinian factions in recent months. Liberman's departure could bode well for truce talks, Zahar said, but Hamas warned that whoever replaces Liberman will face the same fate if he even thinks of carrying out a military assault on the Gaza Strip. There's always that possibility, he said: “Our battle with them is long and will not end with a couple of rounds of military clashes."
As for Liberman's replacement, another hawk is demanding the position. Naftali Bennett, Israeli education minister and leader of the nationalist Jewish HaBayit HaYehudi party, said that unless he gets the job, he will use his party's influence against Netanyahu. The two men were scheduled to meet Nov. 16.
Having anticipated Liberman's resignation and its potential consequences, Netanyahu had previously consulted with Israeli parties to try to save his government from falling apart. When Liberman left his Cabinet position, he took his Yisrael Beitenu party with him en masse, and many observers think his political ambitions contributed to his resignation.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of Israel's parliament, told Al-Monitor that Liberman’s resignation could indeed accelerate the collapse of the Israeli government coalition.
An opinion poll conducted for Israel’s Channel 2 and published Nov. 14 revealed that hours after Liberman's resignation, respondents said if elections were held that day, Liberman's party would win seven seats; previous polls had showed it would only get five seats. Elections are expected to be held in March.
Netanyahu seems to have reason to worry.
The opinion poll also showed that 74% of the surveyed Israeli public wasn't satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance in the latest round of escalation. About 49% believed Hamas won that round; only 14% said Israel won. Because of the public's perception that the Israeli political and military leaderships are weak, Palestinians fear Israel might take military action to counter that belief. In addition, Israelis are still taking to the streets at night in southern Israel to protest the deterioration of the security situation, while the media and several parties continue to criticize the Israeli government.
Military expert and retired Palestinian Gen. Yusuf al-Sharqawi told Al-Monitor that Israel might just be postponing a military strike against the Gaza Strip until it can analyze the Israeli army’s recent failures, particularly the muddled secret mission in Khan Yunis.
A military source in the Palestinian factions’ joint operations room told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that factions have been on alert in anticipation of any sudden Israeli strike.
“The leadership of the joint operations room is regularly meeting to assess the military and field conditions,” he said.
The source warned that Palestinian factions still have many tricks up their sleeves that could catch the Israeli army off-guard in any future round of escalation.
The failure of Israel's deterrent power against Palestinian factions is of great concern to Israel's political and military leadership, despite the limited range of rockets used by the factions during the recent escalation. The human and material losses caused by the attack were large, raising doubts in Israel about the effectiveness of the Iron Dome defense system, which intercepted only 100 of the 460 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
Hisham al-Maghari, a security expert and dean of Al-Awda University College in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that negotiations have a better chance of producing a long-term truce than a military escalation, especially given the results of the recent round of fighting.
Israel may now believe that defeating Palestinian factions in Gaza has become a hard task, he said, especially with the resignation of Liberman, who was considered one of the most determined opponents of a truce. Israelis may fear they could suffer major losses. This may be why the Israeli government is reluctant to agree to military action in Gaza, particularly since it has no real objectives.
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