Gaza avoids war but threat of flare-ups persists

The prospect of elections remains while Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government struggles to keep itself together.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A turning point. A Palestinian child stands in a destroyed building that was hit during an Israeli air strike in Gaza, on November 15.  (DPA)
A turning point. A Palestinian child stands in a destroyed building that was hit during an Israeli air strike in Gaza, on November 15. (DPA)

LONDON - A ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups was largely holding in Gaza after a military escalation between the two sides threatened to develop into a full-blown war. However, it remains unknown how long the Egypt-sponsored deal will last amid Israeli political infighting and instability in Gaza.

The violence began November 11 when Israeli special forces conducted a covert operation inside Gaza, targeting “strategic facilities.” The operation was aborted when Hamas fighters engaged the Israeli infiltrators. Seven Palestinian militants and an Israeli army officer were killed.

Hamas fired more than 460 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, wounding Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel carried out air strikes against some 160 targets in Gaza, killing at least seven Palestinians.

“If the situation escalates into a fully fledged armed conflict it would have a disastrous impact on the almost 2 million residents of Gaza, who are already living in dire conditions of poverty and deprivation of rights,” Saleh Higazi, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, warned in a statement.

“Gaza is already on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, caused by the 11-year brutal and unlawful blockade, and the devastation caused wantonly by three previous armed conflicts. Another armed conflict risks accelerating the full collapse of Gaza; that the UN has already warned that Gaza would become unliveable by 2020.”

The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire went into effect November 13 but the botched Israeli operation, ordered by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, disturbed UN efforts to foster a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.

Prior to the operation, there were reports that Hamas had agreed to prevent Gaza protesters from approaching the Israeli border in exchange for easing the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the strip. In fact, the protests, known as the Great March of Return, were already winding down.

One day after the Gaza ceasefire, Lieberman resigned in protest of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “capitulating to terror” by accepting a truce with Hamas and by allowing Qatar to send $15 million in aid to Gaza. Lieberman called for early elections, a request rejected by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The prospect of elections remains, however, while Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government struggles to keep itself together. Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is a coalition partner with Netanyahu, requested new elections to keep the economy on track.

“The resignation [of Lieberman] throws Israeli politics into turmoil and will almost certainly trigger early elections. Netanyahu must call elections by November 2019 at the latest but the expectation now is that they will be within the next three or four months,” reported Al-Monitor website.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of the far-right Jewish Home party, threatened to withdraw his party from Netanyahu’s coalition if he was not selected to replace Lieberman at the Defence Ministry.

Netanyahu, however, said he would fill the defence post himself, in addition to being de facto foreign minister and health minister, a consolidation of power that is drawing increased criticism in Israel.

Hamas welcomed Lieberman’s resignation as a “victory” for the Islamist movement but there is no guarantee that Netanyahu, perceived as weak by Israeli hardliners over the ceasefire, won’t wage war on Gaza to reclaim his hawkish image ahead of elections.

A poll published November 15 stated 74% of respondents said they were unhappy with Netanyahu’s handling of the situation in Gaza.

Hamas’s ceasefire deal is likely to infuriate its rival Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“In recent weeks, Abbas’s insignificance has been accentuated by efforts made by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations to reach a truce between Hamas and Israel,” wrote Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post.

“Abbas is furious that the three parties have been negotiating directly with Hamas. He believes that direct negotiations will only strengthen Hamas and earn it legitimacy and popularity among Palestinians.”

The Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Abbas, may up the ante against Hamas and punish those who are in Gaza.

“The PA leader’s belief that he’s being marginalised may prompt him to embark on more drastic measures, such as cutting all PA funds to the Gaza Strip,” wrote Abu Toameh.

A deterioration in living standards of Gazans because of punitive economic measures by Abbas or Netanyahu’s use of the Israeli military as part of electioneering would threaten the relative quiet that the besieged Palestinian enclave was enjoying.