Israel’s Gaza policy: a recipe for escalation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading a caretaker government that shouldn’t last long, yet he authorized a complicated operation that generated a barrage of Gaza rockets.

al-monitor A Palestinian militant gestures at the scene of an Israeli strike that killed Islamic Jihad field commander Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza City, Gaza, Nov. 12, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Nov 12, 2019

There is no discernible reason to doubt the explanation by Israel’s chief army spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, who labeled senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza Baha Abu al-Ata a “ticking time bomb.” One can even believe there was no other option but to send the air force in to wipe him out. Unlike the Palestinian Fatah movement, Islamic Jihad is not a partner for a peace dialogue. Unlike Hamas, this organization is not a partner for a cease-fire. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deserve kudos for the highly “surgical” operation, as per Zilberman.

Playing it safe, the IDF representative made clear the military had prepared well ahead for several days of attacks from Gaza and provided aerial defense cover for residents of central Israel, not just for those in the south. In other words, the decision-makers took into account the price that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would have to pay, as they have been paying since the early hours of Nov. 12. Experience accrued over decades of disarming such “time bombs’’ (security threats) shows that an alternative can be found for every bomb. On the other hand, Israelis gain a few months of quiet while a terrorist organization grooms a worthy heir to its assassinated leader.

Setting aside the cost-benefit analysis of killing top terrorists, evil as they may be, there is the question of timing. Zilberman said the military had waited a week for an opportunity to carry out “a surgical strike with a minimum of civilian casualties.” That is a reasonable explanation for the tactical aspect of the timing. However, every Israeli operation in occupied territories has a political dimension. Thus, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his pledge to eliminate Hamas his Likud party’s 2006 election campaign slogan. Slightly over a decade later, Netanyahu arranged a lifeline for the Islamist organization with funding from Qatar. The hawkish chair of the Yisrael Beitenu party, Avigdor Liberman, warned in 2016 that Israel would kill Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours if he did not return Israelis held by Hamas, claiming later on in his defense, after he was appointed defense minister, that Netanyahu had prevented him from making good on his threat.

If such was the face of reality in ordinary times, with Israel run by a government that enjoys public trust, that holds doubly true for times like the present when decision-makers in Israel do not enjoy the trust of most of the public. When Netanyahu incessantly warns of security threats facing Israel in order to push for the formation of a unity government with himself at the helm, of course, it is particularly difficult to draw the line between the military strike he ordered at this particular timing and the personal-political interests of the suspect in three corruption cases who may be indicted by the end of the year. On the eve of the Sept. 17 elections, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit blocked an attempt by Netanyahu to order a military offensive on Gaza behind the backs of the country’s top security officials in order to avenge his embarrassing forced evacuation from an election rally in the southern town of Ashdod when an alarm warned of an incoming rocket from Gaza.

Not only must security considerations be devoid of inappropriate considerations, but they must also be perceived thus in the eyes of Israel and the world. But how can one relate with equanimity to Netanyahu’s decision in recent days to appoint right-wing politician New Right senior Naftali Bennett as defense minister? Just two years ago, in November 2016, Netanyahu dubbed the man to whom he has now entrusted the security of the state as “childish and irresponsible.” Senior Likud Knesset member and retired Gen. Yoav Galant, who has also been eyeing the defense portfolio, voiced his displeasure and described Bennett’s appointment as “irresponsible and inappropriate.” He said, “There are limits, even in politics.” Apparently, there aren’t any.

Even if the supporting reaction of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to the IDF operation was not prompted by political considerations, expressed here and now it could be perceived as an attempt to take advantage of the serious security situation to catapult himself into the country’s next government. Opinion polls indicate that Israelis appreciate an iron hand policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The combination of a security crisis and a political crisis should serve as an opportunity to restore to the agenda the critical crisis in the peace process with the Palestinians, which has been pushed far off of center stage of the political musical chairs game. Once again, Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza from the world turns the tables overnight and isolates central Israel, sending residents to shelters and shutting down schools, businesses and offices. Now, the residents of the Gaza border communities are no longer the only hostages of the isolation — Tel Aviv residents are too.

There is something symbolic in the Nov. 12 announcement by the Institute of National Security Studies, which is headed by former head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, regarding the postponement of a scheduled event within the framework of an arms control seminar due to the latest security developments and under instructions of the Home Front Command to avoid large gatherings. A high-tech superpower that has developed one of the world’s most powerful and sophisticated armed forces is unable to produce leadership that can devise a long-term solution to the ticking time bomb of the day.

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