By Ramzy Baroud
Hamas and Israel recently seemed close to reaching a prisoner exchange agreement, under which the Palestinian group would release several Israeli soldiers held in Gaza and Israel would set free an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners. However, instead of the much-anticipated announcement of a deal, Israeli bombs began falling on the besieged Strip on Aug. 10 and incendiary balloons, originating in Gaza, made their way to the Israeli side of the fence.
So, what happened? The answer lies largely — though not entirely — in Israel, specifically in the political conflicts between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing political camp on the one hand, and the government’s coalition partners, led by Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, on the other.
The discord between Netanyahu and Gantz is concentrated on a fierce budget conflict that is currently underway in the Knesset, which has little to do with government spending or fiscal responsibilities. Gantz, who is supposed to serve his term as prime minister starting in November 2021, believes that Netanyahu plans on passing a one-year budget to disrupt the coalition agreement and to call for new elections before the leadership swap takes place. Therefore, Gantz insists on extending the budget coverage to two years, in a bid to avoid any possible betrayal by Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Netanyahu’s plot, which was revealed by the Haaretz newspaper last month, is not entirely motivated by the Israeli leader’s love of power, but also by his mistrust of Gantz’s own motives in light of his ongoing corruption trial. For both Netanyahu and Gantz, this is perhaps the most crucial fight of their political careers: The former fighting for his freedom, the latter for political survival.
One issue, however, is important to both leaders: The understanding that military strength will always garner greater support from the Israeli public, especially if another election becomes inevitable. A fourth vote in the space of two years is likely to take place if the budget battle is not resolved.
As a military showdown in Southern Lebanon looks unlikely due to the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, the two Israeli leaders have instead turned their attention to Gaza. Moving quickly, as if on the campaign trail, Gantz and Netanyahu have been busy making their case to Israelis living in the southern towns bordering the Gaza Strip.
Gantz paid the leaders of these communities a visit last week. He was joined by a carefully selected delegation of top Israeli government and military officials, including Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster and Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni. Aside from the customary threats of targeting anyone in Gaza who dares threaten Israeli security, Gantz engaged in election campaign-style self-promotion. “We have changed the equation in Gaza. Since I entered office, there has been a response to every breach in our security,” Gantz said, emphasizing his own achievements as opposed to those of the coalition government, thus denying Netanyahu any credit.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has threatened a harsh response against Gaza if Hamas does not prevent protesters from releasing incendiary balloons. “We have adopted a policy under which a fire is treated as a rocket,” he told the mayors of southern towns in a call last week.
The prime minister is keeping the Gaza war option open in case it becomes his only recourse. However, Gantz, as defense minister, is enjoying greater political space to maneuver. He has ordered night after night of bombing on Gaza since Aug. 10. With every bomb that drops on Gaza, Gantz’s credibility among Israeli voters, especially those in the south, increases.
If the current conflagration leads to an all-out war, it will be the entire coalition government — including Netanyahu and his Likud party — that will bear the responsibility for its potentially disastrous consequences. This places Gantz in a powerful position.
But the current military showdown in Gaza is not entirely the outcome of Israel’s political fight. Gazan society is currently at breaking point. The truce between Gazan groups and Israel, which was reached through Egyptian mediation in November 2019, amounted to nothing. Despite many assurances that the besieged Gazans would receive badly needed respite, the situation has this month reached an unprecedented, unbearable phase: Gaza’s only power generator has run outof fuel and is no longer in operation; the Strip’s tiny fishing zone of barely 3 nautical miles was declared a closed military zone; and the Karem Abu Salem Crossing, through which meager supplies enter Gaza from Israel, has been shut. The 13-year-old Israeli siege is now at its worst ever stage, with little room for the people of Gaza to even express their outrage at their miserable plight.
Last December, the Hamas authorities decided to limit the frequency of the protests known as the Great March of Return, which had taken place weekly since March 2018. About 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers during the protests. Despite the high death toll and the relative failure to ignite international uproar against the siege, the non-violent protests allowed ordinary Palestinians to vent their fury, organize, and take initiative. But the frustration now growing in Gaza has compelled Hamas to allow protesters to return to the fence in the hope that it pushes the subject of the siege back onto the international news agenda.
The incendiary balloons that have ignited the ire of the Israeli military are just one of several Palestinian messages aimed at showing that Gazans refuse to accept that the protracted siege is now their permanent reality.
While Egyptian mediation may eventually offer the Palestinians a temporary fix and avoid an all-out war, the Israeli violence in Gaza will not cease under the current political arrangement. For as long as Israeli leaders see war on Gaza as a political opportunity and a platform for their electoral games, the siege will continue.