Gaza rockets are battering Netanyahu’s image, but Hamas isn’t seeking his ouster

Gaza rockets are battering Netanyahu’s image, but Hamas isn’t seeking his ouster

In 1996, Hamas suicide bombings led to Peres’s defeat and Netanyahu’s first victory; scenes of him rushed to shelter aren’t helping him now, but Hamas has a stake in his survival

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: A picture taken in Gaza City on May 5, 2019, shows rockets being fired toward Israel. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Illustrative: A picture taken in Gaza City on May 5, 2019, shows rockets being fired toward Israel. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Someone in Gaza is trying to start a war.

It remains unclear at this point whether this is the work of Hamas or a smaller terrorist group affiliated with it, or whether Islamic Jihad is at work here.

Regardless, it is clear that whoever is firing rockets at Ashkelon and Ashdod is trying to drag Israel into a military campaign in the Gaza Strip precisely when the understandings between Israel and Hamas seem to be working, and right when Gaza is finally seeing an influx of cash, delivered into the coastal enclave in various ways, all of which are approved by Israel.

Despite the fairly reasonable possibility that Hamas is allowing the rocket fire, one cannot discount the possibility that these are independent moves by the Islamic Jihad — not in concert with Gaza’s rulers.

Islamic Jihad may be trying to kill several birds with one stone — namely undermining Hamas’s already eroding authority; dealing a blow to Israel’s image and to that of its prime minister and, at the end of the day, provoking a wide-scale military operation in Gaza.

Palestinian members of the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad terror group, parade with a replica rocket on a truck during a march on Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

If so, thus far, Hamas’s leaders are refusing to come to their senses and restrain Islamic Jihad. Hence the suspicion that Gaza’s rulers are essentially turning a blind eye to the rocket fire.

But Hamas’s refusal to take decisive action does not necessarily spell a desire for war. Rather, it may reflect its own incompetence and, above all, its fear of harsh public criticism from the Palestinian people.

Islamic Jihad’s status in Gaza is very different from that of the smaller Salafist groups with which Hamas occasionally locks horns. Islamic Jihad is a military organization that possesses significant firepower — possibly even a larger rocket arsenal than Hamas.

Islamic Jihad also enjoys considerable Iranian backing, as does Hamas, but should the two Gaza-based terrorist groups clash, Iran would be likely to penalize Hamas and cut off its funding. This consideration is at the heart of Hamas’s dilemma with respect to how forcefully it can counter Islamic Jihad.

Gaza rivalries aside, whoever fired the two rockets at Ashdod and Ashkelon on Tuesday evening dealt a serious blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s image.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, being moved away from a campaign event stage while surrounded by security as rockets are shot at Ashdod on September 10, 2019. (screen capture: Twitter)

Netanyahu, who spares no effort to cultivate his “Mr. Security” credentials, was shown in all his helplessness vis-à-vis the tensions with Gaza. His boasts about the many ways in which Israel could deal with the Gaza Strip — and for that matter with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who Netanyahu mocks as “the man in the bunker” — were exposed as hollow.

Israel has failed to generate necessary deterrence against Hamas. And therefore Hamas, in turn, does not feel obligated to doggedly confront Islamic Jihad or any of the other rogue groups in the Strip.

It is difficult to say whether the images of the prime minister being whisked away from a campaign rally amid wailing sirens and rocket fire will cost him next week’s elections, but this is not the first time Palestinian terrorist groups have tried to sway the results of the Israeli vote.

An Israeli police officer and a medic run at the scene of an explosion where a suicide bomber exploded a bomb in a bus in downtown Jerusalem, Sunday March 3 1996, killing 18 and injuring scores. The Islamic terror group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/Brian Hendler)

Hamas did so in 1996 with a series of suicide bombings that eventually spelled electoral defeat for then-prime minister Shimon Peres and installed Netanyahu in power.

Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, left, glances at Prime Minister Shimon Peres during a ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Monday June 17 1996. Netanyahu was about to present his new government to the Knesset. (AP PHOTO/Nati Harnik)

Will the Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza succeed in again toppling an incumbent prime minister?

It seems highly unlikely.

It is hard to believe that Israel will be dragged into a full-blown conflict in Gaza days before the September 17 elections, especially when Hamas clearly has no interest in war. Gaza’s rulers actually have a stake in Netanyahu’s political survival, as he has proven that his government is willing to cooperate with Hamas — more than any other government in Israel’s history.

Israel and Gaza may thus trade carefully measured blows until next Tuesday. But come September 18, all bets are off.

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