Gaza Flare-up: Netanyahu Resists Pressure for War, but Flames Getting Higher

With Netanyahu in Russia, Israel's defense chief was the one forced to deflect criticism on the burning south

A fire in the Eshkol Regional Council, an Israeli community near the border, June 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

UPDATE: 31 rockets fired from Gaza; Israeli army strikes two Hamas tunnels 

There was a peculiar scene when Likud’s lawmakers met in Jerusalem this week. Netanyahu announced his decision to shut down the Kerem Shalom border crossing into the Gaza Strip – and was greeted by an outburst of applause from his party’s MKs.

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The video of his stern declaration was released immediately onto social media. What seemed less important were the facts: The crossing point has not been shut down (Israel has reduced the entry of merchandise but has not stopped the transfer of foodstuffs and medicine into Gaza). Additionally, some 2,000 trucks have gone through the Rafah crossing point from Egypt with the latter’s approval, and Israeli intelligence believes the chances of success for the latest move are slim.

The Kerem Shalom border crossing in 2016
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

However, the prime minister had to make it look like something was being done, in light of the fires that keep raging in Israeli border communities. The media and right-wing critics have already pushed Netanyahu into a military operation he didn’t want in the Gaza Strip, twice: Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). This time, he looked better prepared to stand firm in the breach, but not to take responsibility.

As Netanyahu was winging his way to Moscow to discuss strategic ideas of supreme importance with Putin, the responsibility elegantly rolled itself to the defense minister’s doorstep. It was Lieberman who remained at home with the unfavorable public opinion polls and the increasing complaints from Israelis living near the Gaza Strip.

The defense minister also knows a thing or two about the craft of diverting fire. On Tuesday, the daily newspaper Ma’ariv published the headline “Lieberman versus the defense establishment.”

According to the report by journalist Ben Caspit, Lieberman wants a strong and extensive operation against those launching incendiary kites and balloons, even at the price of a war in Gaza. However, it just so happens that the army and Shin Bet security service are against any such thing. Security cabinet ministers who have been asked about this professed to be unaware of any disagreement between the defense minister and the security heads.

In reality, though, it does seem that the government shares the concerns of the security professionals. The fact that the fires have not yet led to any deaths enables it to continue to play for time and pull distractions out of the hat.

At IDF Central Command, they see a picture that is less dire than the one drawn by the sometimes hysterical media – which echoes the atmosphere found on social media (some of it settling scores with Netanyahu, given the opportunity). The damage caused by the fires is less than the harm that would be caused by batteries of rockets and mortar shells, never mind a war initiated by Israel inside the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu and Lieberman in June 2018
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The army is arguing that the step-by-step solution it has been formulating to the burning kites threat is beginning to yield results, and simultaneously the response time by firefighting teams is also improving. The IDF also has reservations about some of the recommendations from members of the security cabinet – among them Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Education Minister Naftali Bennett – to shoot the people who are launching the kites.

Hamas takes great care to assign that task to youngsters aged 15 or less; this is not a target that justifies dropping a bomb from an F-15. Moreover, sniper fire is not effective because the kites are for the most part launched from a distance of nearly 2 kilometers from the border fence.

However, at Central Command they admit, in almost the same breath, that the three and a half years of relative quiet that prevailed along the Gaza border since Operation Protective Edge have in effect come to an end following the wave of border demonstrations and subsequent kite attacks.

Hamas is determined to continue to employ these means, and the IDF’s concern is only exacerbated by increasing signs of instability in the West Bank. The atmosphere there is fraught, both because of the growing succession battles and as a projection of the tension in Gaza.

The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to cut the aid to Gaza by one third – dropping to $82 million a month – is contributing to the worsening of the economic situation in the Strip. The expectation is that this will soon be accompanied by the U.S. cut in funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency. The organization provides aid to about 1.2 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, employs 13,000 people there and provides an education to 230,000 students.

It is doubtful that the Israeli sanction at the Kerem Shalom border crossing will lead to any way out of this trap. The army, with support from Netanyahu in the meantime, is trying to avoid a war with Hamas in Gaza. However, the continuing fires – especially if they lead to casualties in the Israeli border communities – are liable to elicit a harsher military response. This will not necessarily be aimed only at the logistical infrastructures that have been built around the kite and balloon launchers. Another possible step is an Israeli “demonstration of capabilities,” in which Hamas military targets are attacked over a period of days, with the aim of reminding the organization’s leadership of the expected price of another war.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot will no doubt be asked about this when he appears before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee next week. In the background there will be the recent warning by the IDF ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, that the readiness and fitness level of the ground forces is insufficient should there be another war in Gaza. The chief of staff, who refutes Brik’s claim, will have to relate to a number of issues – from the kite to the nuclear. The IDF, under Eisenkot’s command, is conducting a successful military campaign against the Iranians beyond the border and, for the most part, also far from the public eye. But he still has to supply answers to simpler and more immediate challenges as well, like the Gazan kids and their kites.