Analysis

Israel Launches Gaza Campaign That May Last Several Days

Netanyahu has been ignoring Gaza. Now it's election time and it's come back to haunt him

An Israeli helicopter shoots flares over the Gaza Strip on March 25, 2019.
AFP

UPDATE: Calm on the Israel-Gaza border after Hamas says cease-fire reached

It's going to be hard to call it a mistake this time, or to blame it all on a lightning storm. Hamas has yet to issue a formal statement or explanation about the rocket shot from Rafah in the Gaza Strip toward central Israel early Monday morning, which injured seven in moshav Mishmeret.

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Lacking any statements, at the moment Israel is regarding the rocket as an intentional action by the Hamas leadership in Gaza (though anonymous Hamas sources claimed on Monday that the organization was not responsible).

With two weeks remaining until the general election, Israel's military response is likely to be stronger than it has been in recent months. The steps already taken – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortening his visit to the U.S., calling up the reserves to man the Iron Dome air defense system, sending forces to the south – show that Israel is preparing for a campaign likely to last several days, if not more. 

A man stares at building that collapsed from reported Israeli strikes in Gaza City on March 25, 2019.
AFP

Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, told reporters on Monday morning that the rocket had been manufactured in Gaza, and that it was launched from a position controlled by Hamas. It scored a direct hit on a house in the moshav, destroying it completely – a range of 120 kilometers. Unlike in the case of the rockets fired at Tel Aviv 10 days ago, this time the army didn’t volunteer an interpretation of Hamas’ move, nor did it weigh in on debates about whether the shot had been intentional or accidental.

Like last time, there was no attempt to intercept the rocket. The army does not reveal information about the deployment of the Iron Dome, but the two incidents could point to two problems. One is a gap in intelligence and analysis of the Palestinian organizations’ intentions. The other is a gap in Iron Dome deployment, whether due to operational mistakes or a shortage of batteries.

At the start of the decade, a report by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said that Israel needs 13 batteries to cover the whole country, but today the army operates only 10 batteries during an emergency situation.

Because of the escalation, the IDF called up a few thousand reserve soldiers. Some of those issued emergency call-up orders are operators of Iron Dome batteries, which will now be deployed throughout the country to boost defenses in the event of another launch. Other soldiers belong to the 36th Division and to two regular brigades, from the infantry (Golani) and Armored Corps (the Sheva Brigade), which had been training in the south in the event that they’d have to operate in the Strip – in addition to serving as a public warning to Hamas.

The rocket forced Netanyahu to cut short his visit to Washington. He managed to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday but had to forgo addressing the AIPAC convention on Tuesday. For him, it’s a high political price: A visit to the U.S. two weeks before the general election was designed to enhance his image as a superstatesman who leaves his rivals in the dust by virtue of his perfect English and ties with leaders like Trump. Meanwhile, it was Benny Gantz who delivered an impressive speech to the convention.

Flame and smoke are seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City March 25, 2019
\ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

But the prime minister had to forgo all those goodies because of Gaza, the problem he has done his best to ignore throughout all of last year. Trump tried to compensate him with a joint ceremony in which he officially declared what he had already made known last week in a tweet – the decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. It was a symbolic event but still effective from the Likud campaign perspective, even though it presumably didn’t much interest the residents of the Gaza border region, who had to spend the night in their protected rooms.

There was something symbolic about the brief exchange Netanyahu had with reporters before boarding his flight to Washington on Saturday night. He had just finished a long interview to Channel 12 about his legal problems, without saying a word about the situation in Gaza. When the Kan, Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, correspondent Gili Cohen asked how Israel could restore a state of quiet with Hamas despite the violence along the border, he dismissed the question with a terse reply and resumed attacking his political rivals. Now Gaza pursued Netanyahu to Washington and he has no choice but to act.

Shortening his visit was a dramatic move, spurring expectations among the public with the election in the background. And this wasn’t the first time: Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 also began after an escalation of events in Gaza at the height of an election campaign. Then, too, Netanyahu was reluctant to launch a broad military campaign but had to engage after being accused of neglecting the residents in Israel’s south. The operation was called off eight days later, after 80,000 reservists had been called up, without Israeli ground forces entering the enclave.

Israeli armored forces near the Gaza Strip border, March 25, 2019
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At that time, Egypt mediated the ceasefire. This time it’s also deeply involved, but its position is completely different. In 2012 Cairo was controlled by Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which viewed Hamas as its ideological sister organization. The present regime under Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is much fonder of Israel.

Throughout the election campaign, and especially after Monday, Netanyahu has been under attack for his government’s inaction over the Gaza Strip. The criticism from the right is easy to understand. Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and others see that their parties are at risk of not making it into the next Knesset and have to distinguish themselves from Likud. One might expect more caution from the left wing and the center: It will be interesting to see whether Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz, Labor’s Avi Gabbay and other politicians urging Netanyahu to strike Hamas into submission will be there to support him after the first 10 funerals on our side, let alone 20 or 50.

A shadow over the election

The first wave of air strikes that began Monday afternoon – amazingly, just as the TV stations had started to broadcast from the White House meeting – focused on Hamas military targets and a few government ministries. It was clear that the attacks, which continued into the night, were very selective. In a few cases the “knock on the roof” procedure was used to warn those inside the buildings to evacuate before they were bombed. What happens next is very much dependent on how Hamas reacts and the success of Egypt’s mediation efforts, which had already begun Monday.

There are all sorts of hypotheses about the rocket attack on Monday morning. It could have been Hamas’ way of disrupting Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. Or it might have been a reaction to an incident at Ketziot Prison, where 12 Hamas prisoners were wounded after two prison guards were stabbed. There have been protracted problems in the prisons in general, and tensions have been building after jamming systems were installed to prevent block prisoners from making cell phone calls.

Another possibility relates to the demonstrations against Hamas that have been taking place in recent weeks in Gaza to protest the serious economic situation there. The Gaza administration is under pressure. To date it has arrested hundreds of demonstrators and dozens of journalists who tried to cover the protests. The fire at the Sharon region could have been a distraction effort.

In any case, the rocket launch cannot be dissociated from the yearlong demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border and developments on other fronts, from Israeli prisons to the latest rise in terror attacks in the West Bank. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has calmed down for the time being after the compromise Israel reached with Jordan about the Bab al-Rahma building, which had become a flashpoint of tension between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. In the background, Hamas is continuing its preparations for this coming Friday, on which the anniversary of the March of Return demonstrations along the Gaza border fence is being marked.

The military escalation will continue to haunt the election campaign. If it intensifies, the political discourse will focus on it, at the expense of the latest scandals, from Gantz’s hacked phone to the conduct of Netanyahu and his associates in the submarines affair.

Israeli soldiers watch as a military bulldozer moves concrete barricade blocks to close a road near the border with Gaza, March 25, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS