Analysis

Gaza Fuse Is Getting Shorter as Netanyahu Risks Losing Control of the Conflict

It’s worth asking whether Israel isn’t projecting its own desires on the enemy and isn’t adhering too strongly to the presumption that Hamas doesn’t want to risk a war ■ Escalation overshadows diplomatic achievement of Oman visit

Smoke rises from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Saturday, October 27, 2018
Hatem Moussa,AP

The massive salvo of rockets from Gaza over the weekend contradicted Israeli intelligence assessments. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who holds out no hope for a deal with Hamas and believes another war in Gaza is inevitable, had expected Friday’s protests along the border fence to proceed much more calmly. This view was based on intelligence assessments.

In reality, the opposite occurred. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli army gunfire along the Gaza border on Friday, and in the evening Islamic Jihad began firing rockets at the Negev. By Saturday morning more than 30 rockets had been fired, with the Iron Dome intercepting those deemed dangerous.

The rest unfolded as it has in previous rounds: The air force attacked dozens of targets (Hamas, then Islamic Jihad) in Gaza, and Egypt hastened to declare a cease-fire.

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The Israel Defense Forces attributes the rocket salvoes to independent action on the part of Islamic Jihad, which doesn’t coordinate with the Hamas authorities. There are a few possible explanations for this. It may due to Iranian instructions to thwart Egyptian efforts to achieve a long-term deal (on Friday there were reports of progress in the negotiations) or it could be reflect Islamic Jihad’s desire to maintain its status as the leader of armed resistance against Israel while Hamas apparently weighs compromise.

In effect, Iran has been financing Islamic Jihad and recently the organization chose a new leader, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, who is trying to make his mark. But it’s worth listening to what Islamic Jihad says publicly.

Since the weekly protests were launched in March, Hamas has almost totally avoided rocket fire in response to the killings of protesters at the fence. Islamic Jihad is declaring that from now on “there will be shooting in response to shooting, blood for blood.” This is its new equation for deterrence. It may be linked to the IDF’s rules of engagement along the fence after weeks in which demonstrators have been shot by IDF sniper fire even at a relatively greater distance from the fence.

The IDF attacked mainly Hamas targets over the weekend, in accordance with Israel’s position that holds the organization responsible for all that goes on in Gaza. This is the case even though the military says that Hamas didn’t want the weekend shootings, just as it didn’t seek rocket fire at Be’er Sheva and the Tel Aviv area some 10 days ago (was that a thunderstorm?), or the shootings at the Gaza border area earlier this week (rogue groups?).

Lieberman visiting the Israel Amry's Gaza division, October, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

It’s worth asking whether Israel isn’t projecting its own desires on the enemy and isn’t adhering just a bit too strongly to the presumption that Hamas doesn’t want to risk a war, as the organization continues to move closer and closer to the brink.

It’s possible that accurately deciphering Hamas’ motives doesn’t change much. In effect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have trouble coming to terms with the situation in which rockets are launched once every week or two and incendiary balloons are dispatched almost every day.

Netanyahu’s restraint is seen as an abandonment of the residents who live along Israel’s Gaza border and his threats and those of his cabinet ministers seem empty.

Politically, the longer the brief bursts of violence persist, the closer we get to a more serious Israeli military response. It may happen. It’s also possible to see a lot of logic in Netanyahu’s hesitation to launch a general operation, which may not achieve anything.

In the background, tensions are rising among the politicians especially between Lieberman and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who the defense minister says is leading the prime minister to adopt too soft a policy towards Hamas. Ben-Shabbat specialized in the struggle against Hamas during his time at the Shin Bet security service, whose southern region he commanded.

An important political message 

The Gaza escalation has overshadowed the diplomatic achievement of the prime minister, who returned on Friday from a visit to Oman in the Persian Gulf. The Omanis have for decades had security and economic ties with Israel and during the years in which the Oslo Accords were seen as a chance for regional peace, they even agreed to maintain these links in public. The fact that Netanyahu was received in such a way during his visit and that the emirate is happy to publicize it, is more than a small achievement. It’s an important political message when such a visit occurs two days after the military chief of Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor, arrives on a visit to Israel.

The warming relations between Israel and Iran’s neighbors should be viewed against the backdrop of the American plan, whose main points were presented by the Pompeo document some five months ago: to isolate Tehran and pile on greater political and economic pressure. Sultan Qaboos of Oman has a clear interest in making the Trump administration happy.

Netanyahu with the sultan of Oman

But the Sultanate of Oman doesn’t survive in such a sensitive and dangerous region by putting all its eggs in one basket. For years Oman has had close relations with Iran, put its banks at the country’s disposal, and even let the Iranian Revolutionary Guards keep heavy water in its midst as part of the nuclear agreement signed in 2015.

Beyond the diplomatic and political benefits of holding a public visit in Oman, Netanyahu can use the Omanis as an indirect channel to convey messages to the Iranians, and the Palestinian arena. But all these are opportunities and hopes for the long term. In the short term, Netanyahu has more urgent problems – by far the worst of them, risk of losing control in the handling of the conflict in Gaza.