Analysis

Gaza Flare-up: What's Keeping Israel From a Military Op

With less than a month to election, the Israeli government knows a military op with Hamas in Gaza could bring more harm than good. But the Israeli public is kept in the dark

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, February 6, 2020.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The measures Israel is taking in response to the launching of rockets and explosive-laden balloons from the Gaza Strip into its southern reaches are still limited in scope. There’s no need to be overly impressed by the Israel Defense Forces’ punitive strikes, which are aimed at two types of targets: Hamas positions near the security fence, attacked immediately after a rocket incident, generally by means of tanks; and infrastructure targets (tunnels, arms depots and so forth) that are hit during selective strikes, which are not expected to escalate tensions. Concurrently, limited economic sanctions have also been imposed – a ban on the export of cement to the Strip from Israel; revocation of entry permits to Israel for 500 merchants and workers; and a more painful measure: reduction of Gaza’s offshore fishing zone from 15 miles to 10.

The government’s rationale in taking all these steps is clear. The election is only three-and-a-half weeks off, and at the moment, and as long as there are few casualties in Israel, a military operation in the Gaza Strip would entail more risks than potential benefit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent preference has been known for years: He is extremely cautious in his dealings with the Strip and is not eager to get embroiled in a war there without clear-cut goals, especially when such a conflict would be certain to exact a predictably heavy price.

The problem is that this policy is not usually spelled out to the public, much less to the Israeli communities adjacent to Gaza, which are being subjected to prolonged psychological warfare and in many cases face mortal danger. Netanyahu has not spoken much about the situation in Gaza at all lately. For his part, Naftali Bennett, who promised a policy shift when he took over at the Defense Ministry, has been occupied with a first visit to the Pentagon – undoubtedly important in its own right – which took place Wednesday.

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The government’s silence on Gaza is being widely perceived as flagrant indifference to the distress of the country’s citizens. This week, the prime minister exploited his facility with social media to send congratulations to the winner of the “The Next Star” reality-TV show, to bicker with members of the Kahol Lavan party, to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of what’s known as the “helicopter disaster,” in which 73 Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed, and to make public directives he issued to researchers at the Israel Institute for Biological Research to help find a vaccine for the coronavirus. Publicly, Netanyahu found time to deal with Gaza only on Wednesday evening, at a meeting with local-government heads from the south. For some reason, according to reports, only representatives identified with Likud were invited to attend – not the heads of regional councils in the so-called Gaza envelope, most of whose voters traditionally lean toward the center or the left.

Netanyahu’s policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip thus remains as it was: containment at almost any price, a strategy that’s concealed, alternately, by bellicose rhetoric, thunderous silence or measures that have usually already been taken before. That didn’t prevent journalist and former MK Yinon Magal, one of the prime minister’s biggest media cheerleaders, from assailing a group of kindergarten teachers (no less!) who, in his view, did not display enough of a national backbone during a recent incident: On a video uploaded to the social networks, they were heard shouting at children to vacate the schoolyard quickly because balloons had been spotted in the sky. It’s truly regrettable that only those in the Balfour Street residence are capable of maintaining exemplary sangfroid in such situations. Maybe the prime minister will find time in the future to give a few lessons on the subject to residents of the south, even to those who didn’t vote Likud in the last election.