Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a dilemma: stir up nationalist sentiment through harsh action against Gaza and possibly a military miscalculation, or avoid escalating tensions and be viewed as soft.
Despite Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s denial of responsibility for the firing of two long-range rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv—and the Israeli army's assessment that they must have been fired by mistake—Israel held all of Gaza responsible and retaliated with massive strikes on Gaza last week.
A hundred targets including Gaza's Hamas headquarters, what Israel calls underground rocket facilities, and military posts were struck including a newly constructed seaport in Khan Younis. Two injuries were reported on the Palestinian side.
Hamas evacuated its headquarters in the Gaza Strip in anticipation of possible retaliation by the Israeli military, and Israeli authorities decided to open public air raids shelters mainly in Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion cities. Some mortars and projectiles were later fired from Gaza following Israeli action.
The two rockets, the first fired since the 2014 war, triggered a state of panic among Israel’s political and army officials as Netanyahu led an emergency a meeting at Kirya military headquarters. The demand to retaliate grew when Education Minister Naftali Bennett blamed Hamas saying it should be held accountable and called on Netanyahu to form a plan to assassinate Hamas chiefs.
The Israeli army says the Iron Dome system was activated, but the system failed to intercept the missiles and they landed in open fields causing no causalities - other officials announced that the rockets were intercepted.
This was embarrassing for Israel’s 5-star military pride, the Iron Dome. The question is why Israel would seek revenge when no faction claimed responsibility? Was there any proof that the rockets were fired from northern Gaza?
Some analysts are not ruling out the possibility that it could be Hamas that fired the rockets to contain protests held earlier in the day by Palestinians. This analysis is backed by security experts in Israel who speculate that the domestic disturbances could have led Hamas to strike Israel as a diversion.
An official statement was issued by Hamas’ armed wing, the Al-Qassam bridges, who stated that “it was not responsible for the firing of the rockets towards the enemy, Tel Aviv. They were fired as a meeting was underway between the leadership of the Hamas movement and the Egyptian security delegation over the understandings regarding the Gaza Strip, stressing that those who fired the rockets are outside the national consensus.”
A conflict with Gaza could be a golden opportunity for Netanyahu to boost his popularity by sparking a surge of nationalism ahead of the general elections scheduled for next month.
The fragile truce between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza has been in place for some time with sporadic attacks happening from to time, amid weekly protests along the Gaza security fence.
Is a war on the horizon?
It’s clear that both Israel and Palestinian resistance groups are not interested in an escalation. Israel has been using Gaza as an experimental field; waging frequent air attacks and tank shelling to regain the power of deterrence in the face of Palestinian resistance.
For its part, Hamas, which has been at loggerheads with its rival Fatah, is not interested in an escalation, especially in light of the hardships that Gaza’s 2 million people live under. Israel's land, naval and air blockade has not eased for twelve years now.
Gaza is a headache for Netanyahu, and he is under constant pressure from former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman—who quit over the Gaza truce in mind 2018—to attack Gaza.
Netanyahu knows a military manoeuvre in Gaza before the elections might cost him his career if he suffers a defeat. He likely prefers to show restraint for the time being rather than a harsh response to the shock rocket attack on Tel Aviv. He too knows that the capabilities of resistance groups have improved. Bibi is smart when it comes to his reputation and knows when to unleash lethal force and when to hold tight, unlike Lieberman who is a simple warmonger.
Gaza is a pressure cooker, and its people are tired of the prolonged split between Fatah and Hamas.
The rocket attack on Tel Aviv was a surprise to Israeli intelligence and hitting a hundred targets was a strong response, but observers were expecting a tougher response possibly involving an assassination or an attack on residential areas. But it’s clear now that Netanyahu is not interested in escalating tensions at this sensitive time.
A serious ceasefire is needed to alleviate the suffering of Gazans, dozens of whom took to the streets to protest economic hardships and high prices under Hamas’ rule.
Now, the pressure is mounting on Netanyahu, and any miscalculations in escalating military activity could jeopardise his election campaign, but a docile policy could also project him as 'weak' ahead of the elections.
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