Would escalation with Hamas benefit Netanyahu?
The current wave of violence that erupted on May 10 between Israel and Hamas has two unusual aspects.
The first is unprecedented. For the first time ever, a relatively minor terrorist organization like Hamas presented a major military power like Israel with a ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of all its security forces from two flashpoints in Jerusalem – the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Hamas even set a specific time – 6 p.m.
Israel has clearly ignored the threat and moved ahead with the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations. But at exactly 6 p.m. Hamas fired six rockets at Jerusalem. One landed on the outskirts of town, causing damage but no casualties. However, warning sirens from incoming rockets disrupted the annual Jewish flag parade in East Jerusalem, sending participants fleeing for shelter, as lawmakers were evacuated from the Knesset plenary where a special annual session was held. in progress marking the victory of the Allies over the Nazis. The scenes, broadcast live, provided Hamas with spectacular photos of victory, caught Israel off guard and mocked the boastful statements of senior Israeli officials in recent weeks.
The second unique aspect of this wave of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip is perhaps even more fascinating: in its most difficult times, as he fights for his political survival and personal freedom, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives unexpected help from his veteran ally. , the Hamas movement.
The rocket attack erupted the day Knesset members Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, leaders of the Yamina and Yesh Atid parties, were preparing to tell President Reuven Rivlin that they had succeeded in forming a new government. The six parties of the so-called Change Bloc had been engaged in intense negotiations in recent days, finalizing most of their coalition deals. Only a few final gaps remained to be closed before the bloc could achieve the near impossible feat of replacing Netanyahu. Then all hell broke loose, with rockets, Israeli planes hitting targets in Gaza, and clashes erupting between Israeli police and Arab citizens, mostly in mixed Jewish-Arab towns.
The developments forced Knesset member Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party Raam, to request a timeout coalition negotiations he had conducted with the aim of becoming the first Arab political party to gain a foothold in an Israeli government. Ra’am is ideologically affiliated with Hamas, and Abbas could not afford to sign coalition agreements with Israel as government forces clashed with his brethren in Gaza. In the end, Hamas might have offered Netanyahu its last lifeline, rewarding him for his political and security positions over the past decade. From Hamas’ perspective, Netanyahu’s positions had actually benefited the group.
Conspiracy theories are rife. Some argue that Netanyahu deliberately organized the escalation of tensions in Jerusalem, using his close collaborator and henchman, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who in turn activated his new police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai.
But how did the events unfold? Tensions began last month in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, sparked by a protracted legal dispute between Jews seeking to evict Palestinians from their homes, a move backed by a court ruling. The tension spread from there to the most volatile flashpoint on the face of the earth – the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The bizarre police decision last month to place metal barriers near the Old City’s Damascus Gate in order to disrupt traditional Ramadan nighttime gatherings at the site, spawned nightly clashes, first in the gate area, then into the Al-Aqsa compound. Then came the Hamas ultimatum.
Every year on May 10, Jerusalem Day, Israeli Jews celebrate the city’s unification after reclaiming its eastern part in the 1967 Six-Day War, 54 years ago. For the first time ever, an outside force – Hamas – managed to disrupt the celebrations, including the flag parade that many Muslims see as an annual provocation, dominating the regional agenda and pushing the Palestinian Authority (PA) apart.
Putting aside the political implications of this epidemic, Netanyahu is now reaping what he has sown since his return to power in 2009 on the promise to destroy Hamas. In the years that followed, like analysts, he had in practice forged an alliance with the group. By avoiding a total confrontation with the organization, he had defended it. He also helped raise money to finance it, allowing foreign assistance. All of this became crystal clear during the 2014 war with Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge. Netanyahu was simply not interested in bringing down Hamas, on the contrary: he wanted a strong Hamas and a weak, stammering PA. The result is a strong and confident group that is now facing him – but who can also do him a great service.
For all of his belligerent rhetoric, Netanyahu’s record reflects caution, pragmatism, and a deep aversion to military adventures. In the next few days, we’ll find out if his desperate political and legal difficulties have an impact on these fundamental traits. Ironically, the continued clashes with Hamas undermine the prospects of a new government to replace Netanyahu. The law gives Lapid just over three weeks to form a new government, suggesting that the military clash with Hamas could last that long. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were ordered to respond harshly to Hamas rockets on Jerusalem and the Air Force shelled several targets on the night of May 10-11. his usual pattern of struggle for a quick end to the fighting?
Another troubling aspect concerns the element of surprise. Military intelligence assessments in recent weeks have argued that Hamas is not seeking a protracted clash with Israel. This analysis was largely based on the character and actions of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ “strongman” in Gaza, who focused on alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the enclave and strengthening his power. . Apparently, the Israeli intelligence services failed to identify the significance of the surprising threat a few days ago from Mohammed Deif, the head of the military wing of Hamas, who had been lying for years.
Deif was the one who start the threat saga against Israel last week, and its sudden appearance (in voice only) seems to have shifted the balance of power in the Gaza Strip almost overnight. Israel believes Sinwar had no choice but to join the military wing. Hamas is also experiencing a power struggle between its leaders outside Gaza (Khaled Meshaal and Salah al-Arouri) and Gaza (Ismail Haniyeh and Sinwar), with the outside group pushing for confrontation with Israel and demonstrating militancy, while that Sinwar prefers the calm that would allow him to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of the enclave.
In 2014, on the eve of Operation Protective Edge, military intelligence determined that Hamas was not seeking to confront each other. Then the fighting lasted 51 days. This time everyone – maybe except Netanyahu – is hoping it will be shorter.