From the standpoint of Israeli experts, the situation in the south, as of Tuesday morning, was discouraging and worrying. The country’s political leadership has lost its cool.
It is afraid to tell its citizens the truth: that the incendiary kites being sent over the border from the Gaza Strip have created a security problem for neighboring Israeli communities and constitute a threat that needs to be addressed with persistence and determination – but the fires caused by incendiary kites and balloons, which have so far not caused a scratch to a single Israeli, cannot provide grounds for going to war.
Such sentiments are not being uttered in public, however. The political leadership is becoming captive to its own strident declarations – and without a change in its approach, we continue to edge dangerously close toward an unnecessary war with Hamas.
A whirlwind of circumstances is pushing Israel into this corner: internal tensions among Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, the three parties spearheading the coalition’s security policy; and melodramatic media coverage (on Tuesday, for example, one newspaper reported about a falcon found on the Israeli side of the border, with an incendiary device attached to it – and this is in a country where people still remember when there were suicide bombings on buses), and public pressure is growing.
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There doesn’t seem to be even one person among the top security brass who believes that the incendiary kites and other devices justify going to war. Aside from their desire to be reelected, it’s reasonable to assume that this would also be the stance of most of the members of the cabinet. But politicians read the opinion polls that indicate that there is major frustration over the continuing blazes on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, and they feel as if the ground is shaking under their feet.
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Moreover, as in the two most recent rounds of fighting in the Strip – Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – this time too there is the whiff of a possible election in air.
There is still some room for maneuver to prevent a war. The pressures being applied by Egypt and by the United Nations on Hamas could influence the Palestinian Islamist movement to rein in the kites, but there is mounting concern that ultimately, a military confrontation could erupt over micro-tactics: an isolated incident, which is always possible, involving a fire that causes fatalities.
For more than a year now, defense officials have been united in warning the government and the security cabinet of the danger in creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and have been recommending economic steps to ease the situation there. Even prior to that, military intelligence issued a “strategic warning” to the political leadership over possible serious violence in the territories.
Since March – in demonstrations along the Gaza border fence, in ever more frequent rounds of rocket and mortar fire, and with the incendiary kites – it is Hamas that has been dictating the course of events.
Hamas is knowingly bringing the danger of war closer in the mistaken belief that it would extract the organization from its distress. (Shin Bet security service officials believe that it is capable of going all the way, while the Israeli army’s intelligence corps is more skeptical).
The long weeks of fiery kites and other devices sailing over the border were the straw that broke the camel’s back. The sight of scorched fields and forests has been depressing and frightening, but up to now the damage had been done more to the sense of security among the Israeli border communities than to actual security. Longtime residents there, who are not agitating for war, remember well the price of real warfare: heavy shelling, civilian casualties, temporary evacuation – and, most importantly, the death of soldiers.
After all that, we are liable to long for the days of the kites. And when the fighting finally ends, it’s reasonable to assume that Israel would return to indirect negotiations with Hamas, and to consider exactly the same issues that are on the table at the moment: freedom of movement in and out of the Strip, and the rules of the game along the border fence.
What we are currently seeing may also make us recall Benjamin Netanyahu’s splendid flip-flop several months ago over the country’s policy on African asylum seekers. The prime minister knows what the requisite responsible policy is, but he’s afraid of an angry response from his political base. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman face the same problem.
The Israel Defense Forces, which has been standing in the breach for quite some time, is afraid that it will be portrayed as defeatist. That is the result of leaks over the exchange between Bennett and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at Sunday’s security cabinet meeting – which damage the army’s ability to stand up to pressure from the politicians.
On Monday, Lieberman’s office announced new punitive measures at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza. The supply of fuel into the Strip was due to be halted from Tuesday morning until the following Sunday. The area of the fishing zone permitted to the Palestinians is also being reduced for a second time. When it comes to shipments of food and medicine into Gaza, the announcement was somewhat confusing: They would continue after being approved on an “individual basis.”
Throughout all these developments, there is a sense among the Israeli public of a heavier hand being applied on Gaza, while in practice, decisions are being left to bureaucrats in the office of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Perhaps in the process we have gained room for maneuver of a couple of days to examine other options before the IDF receives direct orders to systematically shoot at those launching the kites – despite army chief Eisenkot’s reservations. Such an explicit order, contrary to the misleading comments of Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues, has not yet been issued.
As is its wont, Hamas is also contributing to this march of folly. Despite his many years in Israeli prison, it appears that Yahya Sinwar, the organization’s political leader in Gaza, is again misreading the Israeli establishment. Hamas is also continuing to send mixed messages to Egypt, all the while leading the kite attacks. Occasionally a rocket is also fired over the border from Gaza, despite the cease-fire announced Saturday night, at Hamas’ request.
Sinwar is approaching the edge, and could end this clash by falling into the abyss – with Gaza, as always, paying the highest price. Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a Gaza journalist who is close to Hamas, put it well Monday when he wrote: “If the [incendiary] balloons cause a war, their use needs to be reassessed.”
For years, Netanyahu has been managing the ongoing crisis in the north with Iran and Hezbollah, for the most part wisely and cautiously, without leading Israel into war. There is also a measure of logic in the skepticism that he has been demonstrating over the prospects of a peace process with the Palestinian Authority – but it’s difficult to explain the conduct of his government over the past year when it comes to Gaza.
It’s an accident waiting to happen before our very eyes and prompts unpleasant comparisons with the conduct of leaders of other democratic countries – from President Trump’s embarrassing appearance at Monday’s summit meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the twists and turns of the British government, which is trapped under the weight of its false promises to the British public over Brexit.
When it comes to everything related to Gaza, it appears that the Israeli government is misleading the public as it entangles itself in baseless populist declarations.