The Gaza Problem
The Israeli cabinet’s decision to accept a cease-fire with the Islamist terror group Hamas after Palestinians fired more than 450 rockets and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip into Israel within a two-day period set off a heated debate about Israel’s long-term strategy to bring calm to its southern border.
Since Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in August 2005, Hamas has launched more than 20,000 projectiles into Israel, according to data compiled by the Israel Defense Forces. The missile barrage in November 2018 was the largest since Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day military operation launched in July 2014 to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Since June 2007, when Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas have reached at least 10 cease-fire agreements—one truce a year, on average. Hamas is now believed to possess an arsenal in excess of 20,000 rockets and mortars of different calibers and ranges and is well-positioned to violate the current cease-fire whenever it desires.
Given the intractable situation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from hard-line members of his Security Cabinet for tougher action. Avigdor Lieberman, who has long advocated for a more decisive blow to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza, has accused Netanyahu of “surrendering to terror” and recently resigned as defense minister in protest of yet another cease-fire. “We are buying quiet for the short term at the price of serious damage to national security in the long term,” he warned. Netanyahu defended the truce: “The leadership is doing the right thing,” he replied.
Most military analysts agree there are no good options for Gaza: Either Israel makes concessions to Hamas, which would embolden the group to make greater demands; or it annihilates Hamas, which would lead to a collapse of the Gaza Strip and create a power vacuum that likely would be filled by other jihadi groups; or it reoccupies the Gaza Strip, which would leave Israel in control of 2 million hostile Gazans.
In any event, the threat posed by Hamas in Gaza is, from Netanyahu’s perspective, secondary to the existential threat posed by Iran. This explains why Netanyahu has been prepared to pay a heavy domestic political price for his continued restraint vis-à-vis Gaza. In hierarchical terms, Netanyahu’s top regional priority is countering Iran’s nuclear program and, secondly, Tehran’s attempts to set up a permanent military presence in Lebanon and Syria—especially along the Golan Heights. By containing the conflict with Hamas through recurring cease-fires, however short-lived they may be, Netanyahu is trying to create the political space he needs to focus attention on the larger strategic priority of confronting Iran.
“Iran is devouring one nation after the other,” Netanyahu recently told the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. “It is doing so either by direct conquest or by using proxy. They took over Lebanon, Yemen. . . . They try to do the same thing with Iraq, in Syria. The good news is that the other guys [Sunni-Muslim countries] are getting together with Israel as never before. It is something that I would have never expected in my lifetime,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu has kept the upper hand, at least for now. Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister threatened to bring down Netanyahu’s coalition government over Gaza policy. In an impassioned televised address, Netanyahu had rejected calls for early elections.
After an unrelated coalition crisis over a new military conscription bill affecting exemptions from compulsory service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, Netanyahu subsequently announced that early elections will be held in April.