With Israel’s government on the brink of collapse, Netanyahu has paid the price for his aggression towards Gaza

The Israeli PM has worsened a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and pushed more people to Israel’s borders for eight months of protests and clashes. His actions are now coming back to haunt him

Bel Trew@beltrew
Friday 16 November 2018 15:56
Dozens of rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians

The logic doesn’t seem right: the very people fed up of living under a barrage of rockets from Gaza rejecting a ceasefire between their government in Israel and the fighters that are firing at them.

But in Sderot, a border town worst hit by the 460 rockets militants fired into south Israel, residents did that just. Hundreds gathered, burning tyres, blocking roads and chanting “disgrace” when the rocket sirens finally went silent.

“While everyone feels the end of something and people have a sense of relief, we don’t get this. We have been living in a warzone for 18 years,” Stav Cohen, a long-term resident of the town, told me.

Maxine Dorot, an ex-college lecturer in Ashkelon further north, spelt it out more succinctly.

“While I feel very sorry for the Palestinian civilians who are innocent, I think we should go in and assassinate all the Hamas leaders – kill them all.”

But then in Gaza, things also appeared upside down. Supporters and leaders of Hamas, the militant group that runs the strip, stood in front of the bombed-out carcass of their own headquarters and celebrated a resounding victory. This is despite the fact that every one of the eight people killed on both sides of the border during this latest flare-up of violence, were Palestinian. It was almost as if Israel hadn’t pummelled more than 160 targets in Gaza, including levelling four key buildings.

But this topsy-turvy world of the Israel-Palestine never-ending war is the new normal. And its biggest casualty was Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once-warmongering prime minister, who has finally checkmated himself.

Despite bringing his country back from an impossible conflict, at a time when Israel fears two wars on the northern borders, the prime minister is perilously close to the dissolution of his government. Today, in a confusing tangle of leaks it appeared his parliamentary coalition had collapsed and new elections had been called at the worst possible time, with his popularity at an all-time low. The prime minister’s office denied the reports but questions of how he can move forward remain unanswered.

Shortly after the ceasefire was announced by Gaza, Netanyahu’s controversial defence minister Avidgor Lieberman announced his resignation, saying that his Yisrael Beiteinu party and their five seats would leave Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition. It left Netanyahu with just a one-seat majority that means any MK in the Knesset could effectively enjoy a veto power.

Then Naftali Bennett, the country’s far-right education minister and the premier’s outspoken nemesis, threatened to also pull his party’s eight seats from the coalition if he was not handed the country’s defence portfolio, something Netanyahu’s Likud party have already said would not happen.

Today’s crisis meeting between Netanyahu and Bennett did not go well, according to sources close to the education minister, who said the pair decided elections would be called and the government dissolved. Whether this will happen remains to be seen, but arguably Netanyahu is the architect of his own downfall in his poor handling of the Gaza Gordian knot. His disastrous policies have come back to haunt him.

The tactic has been to divide and conquer, setting the West Bank and the Gaza at each other’s throats, as well as tightening Israel’s crippling blockade on Gaza. This has only worsened a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and pushed more people to Israel’s borders for eight months of protests and clashes. Meanwhile, he has used wars to distract the Israeli electorate from domestic woes to win votes, only creating a battle-hardened Palestinian people who have nothing to lose.

It meant that in this latest flare-up of cross border fire, there was nothing left for Netanyahu to do.

He could neither afford to go to war with Gaza, and risk distracting his forces away from two potential conflicts on its northern borders with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Nor could he launch additional airstrikes to “teach Hamas a lesson” because it would have ended in war.

But a ceasefire without terms after this 24-hour outburst of rockets sends a worrying message that will only see more violence, former Israeli commanders have argued.

The Gaza fighters showcased an effective new war tactic: concentrating short-range fire on one part of Israel’s advanced Iron Dome missile defence system to overwhelm it, even just momentarily.

While more than 100 rockets were shot down by interceptors – at an estimated cost of $12m (£9m) – a small amount made it through setting fire to a bakery and killing a West Bank Palestinian man in his home in Ashkelon.

Gaza’s fighters have an arsenal of around 20,000 (comparatively) unsophisticated rockets and mortars. Hezbollah, according to the Israelis, have more than 150,000, including guided missiles. They will no doubt be watching with interest.

For this reason, some Israelis argue it is important for Israel to keep bombing Hamas capabilities in Gaza, even though it could trigger a war, to counter that threat.

“If we stop firing now there will be a feeling our deterrence has been eroded. We don’t want to be at their mercy whenever they choose to fire a rocket,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli army.

“A ceasefire must be complete, no rockets, no attempts to breach the border fence, or rockets will be fired again,” he added.

In Gaza, Hamas officials heralded the past few days as a major win, claiming that they even predicted the resignation of Lieberman, a man much reviled in territory.

“The Israelis are shocked at how weak their government is and how it has been humiliated. We unveiled proof of their inner turmoil,” said a senior Hamas source.

He said this latest conflict had also showcased their new and improved capabilities. He pointed to the discovery of a botched Israeli intel operation in southern Gaza on Sunday night. The covert mission, which resulted in a firefight during which seven Palestinians and an Israeli lieutenant colonel were killed, sparked the latest wave of violence.

Unless Netanyahu finds a brilliant way to cut that Gordian knot, the days of his coalition, and a fourth term in office, are over. In its place may well be an even more hawkish further right government.

And if that is the case the hamster wheel of violence will continue to spin.

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