Ahead of September elections, Israel's leaders cynically threaten a new Gaza war to win votes

Ahead of September elections, Israel's leaders cynically threaten a new Gaza war to win votes
Comment: Politicians in Israel are using Gaza as a scapegoat to win the upcoming September 17 elections, but Palestinians are not helpless, writes Yousef Alhelou.
6 min read
20 Aug, 2019
Palestinians burn posters of President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bahrain's King in Gaza [AFP/Getty]
There's less than one month to go before the upcoming snap Israeli vote to elect a new Knesset, the second time this year, but once again the threat of waging a devastating war on Gaza is being used as a voter mobilisation tactic by Israeli leaders.

It has been almost five years since Israel's 2014 fifty-one-day all-out land air and sea offensive on the Palestinian coastal stip, but regaining the "power of deterrence" and maintaining "calm" in Gaza - is again a key rallying cry in the Israeli electoral lexicon used by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents in both the right and the left. 

Since 2014, many military escalations and tensions have erupted between Israeli forces and Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza led by Hamas. Many calls were voiced by Israeli officials urging Netanyahu to launch a new "war" on Gaza and regain Israel's deterrence. 

But with advanced long-range rockets fired from Gaza in recent months, hitting Tel Aviv and other major cities, Netanyahu will think twice before agreeing to stage a new large military operation.  

Unlike what happened during the April election, which resulted in Netanyahu failing to form a coalition government and ended in political paralysis, the security situation along the Gaza border fence has taken a back seat this time, raising questions about the logic behind threats against Gaza.

Despite rounds of escalation in Gaza, tensions resulting from the Great Return March protests and recent attacks on Israelis in the West Bank, Netanyahu had shown restraint.

The Israeli prime minister had not given a green light for a new incursion into Gaza or even so-called targeted assassinations against Palestinian resistance commanders.

Netanyahu has probably been concerned by the possibility of miscalculating and knows that the capabilities of the resistance groups have improved despite the ongoing 12-year blockade on Gaza.

But during a visit to Ukraine on Monday, Netanyahu claimed Israel is readying plans for a "forceful military strike against Hamas".

"I am preparing a massive campaign; it will be different than anything we have seen before,” Netanyahu claimed. "I cannot elaborate on the preparations but we are properly positioned for such a scenario".

Earlier on Monday, Israel's energy minister said Netanyahu's cabinet was planning a "widespread operation" on the besieged enclave.

This comes after Netanyahu's opponent to the left, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, said that Israeli deterrence had been "weakened".

Gantz vowed that if he becomes prime minister he would move to pound Gaza, send ground troops into the enclave, and kill Hamas' leadership in the event of another round of fighting. 

"The next time something happens here, we will make sure that it's the final round. Another round of fighting would not end with just an agreement, but with an attempt to fully defeat Hamas militarily," Gantz said.

Many analysts agree that while Israel does not intend to re-establish direct control over Gaza, or topple Hamas, a quick Israeli incursion, causing extensive death and destruction, is possible.

Scapegoating Gaza and rebuilding discipline

In addition to scapegoating Gaza for the sake of winning votes, Israel could with such an operation achieve two other goals: test new weapons, and rebuild military discipline to provide new soldiers with real combat experience.

In recent weeks, Israel's defence establishment announced that it will begin building an additional 6-metre high wall along the northern part of the Gaza border fence to protect communities after three infiltrations along the border in less than two weeks. Approximately 70,000 Israelis reside in over 50 communities in the Gaza border area.

Over the past 17 years, thousands of home-made rockets and projectiles have been fired from Gaza into territories under Israeli control, with Israeli communities along the Gaza perimeters forced into fortified bomb shelters.

In visits to these communities along the Gaza perimeter, Netanyahu himself has assured Israelis that the army is preparing for the possibility of a large-scale military campaign in Gaza if necessary.

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But while Netanyahu knows that Gaza is a pressure cooker and wants to maintain calm there -- despite his rhetoric -- he is unwilling to lift the siege on Gaza as per agreements reached with Hamas under Egyptian mediation, the first logical step to any lasting solution. 

Instead, in the Israeli rhetoric, the tiny impoverished coastal strip where nearly two million Palestinians live in unbearable conditions is conveniantly described as a "hostile entity" and a threat to Israel's security.

If they're not threatening war, Israeli officials propose "solutions" for the Gaza Strip that include moving the Palestinians to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Avoiding responsibility

Yet it is Israel, as the occupying and blockading power, that is responsible for the situation in Gaza.

Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in September 2005 and dismantled its 21 illegal settlements. Since the Israeli withdrawals from Gaza in late 2005, three major all-out onslaughts and numerous sporadic frequent incursions were waged on Gaza under the stated goal of putting an end to the rocket fire. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were either killed, injured and maimed. Thousands of residential properties and industrial establishments were also destroyed.

The withdrawal of Israeli troops and redeployments around Gaza did not end Israel's occupation and control, on the contrary it led to an advanced segregation regime, with fortified watch towers along Gaza-Israel security fence equipped with the latest technology, reconnaissance and attacking drones and warships and gunboats patrolling Gaza's 45km coastline

Passenger and commercial crossings are still being controlled by Israel. These measures became harsher and more severe after a land, air and sea blockade was imposed by Israel in response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 and the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas in mid 2007.

These measures transformed the enclave it into the world's largest open-air prison.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

The Palestinians in Gaza know that they are being used as hostages or a bogeyman by warmongers and hawkish politicians in Israel to win in the upcoming elections at the expense and suffering of the inhabitants of war-torn besieged Gaza.

Hamas has officially responded that Israel's threats are an attempt to woo Israeli voters.

"The resistance's response to any new Israeli crime will be many times stronger than before," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem stated.

But that does not mean they're not preparing themselves for the worst case scenario.

In recent weeks, high profile meetings were held between officials from both the political and military leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the largest armed groups in Gaza to discuss readiness in case a major offensive was initiated by Israel. 

The meeting also discussed plans on how to respond to future storming of Al-Aqsa mosque by settlers as well as reactions to attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran.  

The leader of Hamas in the Gaza strip Yehya al-Sinwar subsequently warned that his movement will break what he termed the "defeated" Israeli occupation army if they enter the Gaza Strip and shower Israeli cities with long range rockets if Israel tries to go to war with Hamas-ruled Gaza. 

"If a war breaks out, then we will break the occupation army, and we mean what we say and the occupation army knows we are honest". 

Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist and political analyst from Gaza, based in London. He is a United Nations fellow and alumni, and served as a Reuters journalist fellow at the University of Oxford.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefAlhelou

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.