There was no reason to envy the head of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, this week. On Monday evening he found himself on the horns of a complex dilemma.
Following the arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, the head of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank city of Jenin, passions ran high in the territories when a video clip was posted showing Border Police officers, accompanied by an attack dog, dragging the senior Palestinian figure on the ground. At the same time, rumors spread in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that he was killed while being taken into custody.
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Israeli intelligence warned of an immediate intention to take revenge on the part of the organization in Gaza. The main danger was posed to the Israeli communities close to the Gaza border, known collectively as the “Gaza envelope,” which are vulnerable to attacks of antitank missiles, snipers and rockets.
At Toledano’s recommendation and the authorization of the chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister, a partial lockdown was imposed on the area. Outdoor social activities were canceled, roads were closed to traffic and the local residents stayed home. Many others, who still carry searing psychological scars from previous rounds of fighting, hurried to leave for parts north. This is not how they had planned to spend the summer vacation with their children. Train service was halted between Sderot and Ashkelon, where in a supreme display of intelligence the rail was laid, after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, partly along a route that is exposed to antitank fire from that region.
For the first 24 hours, the population was patient. No one wants to think about the possibility of a child being killed by a missile or a mortar shell, and the impression was that the army was taking a necessary, time-limited step. However, the unquiet grew because the mediators from Egyptian intelligence found it difficult to extract an ironclad commitment from Hamas to halt activity by Islamic Jihad. By Wednesday evening, patience in the Gaza envelope appeared to have run out completely.
What was initially perceived as limited, necessary emergency measures, already looked like a decree the public would not abide by. The longer the emergency situation lasts, the more acute the trap: How to lift the siege without exposing the civilian population to attacks? The fact that none of the senior personnel above Toledano saw fit to mediate the considerations frankly to the public, until the chief of staff’s visit to the Gaza Division on Thursday, is also problematic.
There’s no way to avoid noting that the sudden crisis emanating from the Gaza Strip is being handled by a caretaker government in a new format, which is also poised at the start of an election campaign. It’s being challenged from the right by an opposition that is declaring – falsely – that when Likud was still in power, all the security threats were dispensed of with determination and aggressiveness.
This is also a government whose leader, Yair Lapid, and whose defense minister, Benny Gantz, are competing for almost the same political slot and are not concealing their burning mutual hostility. The tension in Gaza – which might yet fizzle out quickly – comes on top of a trap in regard to Hezbollah which hasn’t been fully resolved, over the demarcation of the maritime border with Lebanon.
Every week that Lapid remains ensconced in the Prime Minister’s Bureau he gains more points in the public opinion surveys in regard to his sheer suitability for the job, and he closes a little of the gap with his chief rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. But in Israel, prime ministers are elected mainly for their performance in security crises, and that’s also where their political death knell can be sounded. In case Lapid forgot, he can always ask his friend Ehud Olmert to tell him about his experiences in the summer of 2006.
What Islamic Jihad is gaining from the events is clear. By brandishing one threat of revenge, the organization is seemingly forging a new equation. From its point of view, Israel is overdoing the arrests in the West Bank – and it is able to close down the communities of the Gaza envelope. At the same time, the weakness is exposed of the ungrounded claim by the IDF’s top brass that a crushing victory was supposedly achieved in Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021.
If the Palestinian organizations are so weak and deterred since that campaign, why are they daring to make threats and why does Israel feel a need to back off? Very good ties generally prevail between the residents and the head of Southern Command and divisional headquarters. But there’s a limit to how far people’s nerves can be stretched. A way out will be needed soon.