Israel Decides Against Toppling Hamas in Gaza, Seeks to Weaken It

The plan to keep the group in power in the Strip stems from a desire to prevent a collapse of Gaza’s infrastructure, political sources say

A Palestinian protester waves a national flag during a demonstration on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, northern Gaza Strip, October 22, 2018.
AFP

Political and military leaders have concluded that it would be better for Israel not to overthrow the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, officials who took part in the deliberations told Haaretz.

A political source said Israel’s policy on Hamas has not changed; the plan to keep the group in power in the Strip stems from a desire to prevent a collapse of Gaza’s infrastructure, a problem that could harm Israel as well.

Accordingly, the instructions to defense officials are to deter Hamas and weaken it, but in a way that will not put its control of Gaza at risk. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to support efforts to reach an agreement that will restore quiet to the south.

>> Gaza fuse is getting shorter as Netanyahu risks losing control of the conflict | Analysis

The Israeli officials’ conclusion stems from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rigid stance on Gaza and the attempts to reach an agreement.

Abbas is making it difficult to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, for example, by opposing the entry of fuel trucks financed by Qatar. Israel fears that this increases the chances of an escalation.

According to the officials, Abbas is hoping for a flare-up because he believes that this would serve the PA in its reconciliation talks with Hamas. In the near term, he plans to increase the punitive measures against the organization, the officials say.

As a result, senior political and defense officials say Israel’s talks with Hamas through intermediaries will be more effective than a process that involves the PA.

Netanyahu told reporters Monday that he continues to support efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Strip.

“We are working to prevent [Gaza] forces getting into Israel to harm our soldiers and communities,” Netanyahu said. “On the other hand, we’re working to prevent a humanitarian crisis, which is why we’re willing to accept the UN and Egyptian mediation efforts to achieve quiet and fix the electricity situation.”

A political source added that “there is no diplomatic solution with a group that wants to destroy us. The only solution is deterrence and a humanitarian solution to prevent a collapse that will end up exploding in our faces.”

The source, using Abbas’ nickname, added that “the collapse is a result of Abu Mazen’s decision to cut [the Gazans’] funding. We were close to signing an agreement for getting back to calm but it was scuttled by the protests at the fence Friday. They were getting fuel before, so we thought things would calm down, but then they came to the fence.”

According to political sources, Netanyahu wants to avoid a war, but that does not mean he will be able to.

"Our options are occupying Gaza, but if we had someone to give it to, we would have occupied it already,” one source said.

“And it has to be done in a way that prevents casualties. But there’s no one to give it to; the Arabs don’t want to hear about it, so the other option is to hit it hard without occupying it. To give us time. But actually, we’re already giving them pretty hard blows.”

Sources said Netanyahu is willing to take criticism because he believes he still has options to achieve quiet.

“It’s not only a question of political capital, we have not exhausted all options,” the source said. 

Acting in Syria again

Meanwhile, Israel has operated in Syria since a Russian plane was downed by Syrian air defense last month, an accident that sparked a crisis between Israel and Russia, a diplomatic source said Monday.

The source said Netanyahu may meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on November 11. “We believe there’s a good chance the meeting will happen there,” the source said. “It’s convenient, but not yet set.”

Fifteen Russian airmen were killed in September when the Ilyushin-20 turboprop was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defense soon after an Israeli strike near the coastal city of Latakia.

Israel blamed Syrian recklessness, while the Russian Embassy in Israel said the Israel Air Force’s actions were “irresponsible and unfriendly.”

Netanyahu said this month that he and Putin have agreed to meet for the first time since the incident.

Haaretz’s Amos Harel wrote last week that Moscow has been taking a more forceful stance toward Israel concerning IAF activity in the north, ever since the Russian intelligence-gathering plane was shot down.

Israel said on September 4 that it had carried out more than 200 airstrikes in Syria over the previous two years – an average of twice a week – with Russia largely turning a blind eye. There have been no reports of such missions since the Russian plane’s downing on September 17.