AnalysisRockets were fired at TLV as Hamas leaders met Egyptian team

Rightly choosing restraint, Netanyahu shows last thing he needs now is Gaza war

He’s rising in the polls, his rival is making headlines for having his phone hacked, and thus even two rockets fired at Tel Aviv aren’t prompting a major escalation

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center right) meets with senior security officials at the IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center right) meets with senior security officials at the IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Hard though it may be to believe, even the firing of two rockets at Tel Aviv from Gaza, by Hamas, has not dragged Israel and the Gaza terrorists into war or even a major escalation, at least as of this time of writing. Israel’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who so prides himself on his “Mr. Security” credentials, has preferred to swallow the bitter pill of Thursday night’s rocket fire and preserve relative calm.

To the credit of Netanyahu and the government he heads, they proved Thursday night and Friday morning what they have often claimed: That the importance of Sderot is no different from that of Tel Aviv, and that what holds true for one of those cities holds true for the other. If somebody had said a few months ago that rocket fire at Tel Aviv would pass with only minimal Israeli military retaliation, Sderot-style, they would have been accused of being delusional.

But this is an election period. Netanyahu’s position in the polls is getting stronger. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is making headlines for having his phone hacked by the Iranians. The last thing Netanyahu needs is war with Gaza.

One can only wonder what might have happened if one of the security networks of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had launched two missiles (by mistake) at Ben Gurion Airport or Tel Aviv. The government might well have called unanimously for a major operation in the West Bank to demolish the terrorist infrastructure. But facing off against Hamas, and given the remarkable covenant that has been created between the terror group and the Netanyahu government, the prime minister (rightly) prefers restraint rather than being dragged into another conflict with unforeseeable consequences.

An explosion caused by Israeli airstrikes is seen over Gaza City, early Friday, Friday, March 15, 2019. Israeli warplanes attacked terrorist targets in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday in response to a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

According to the version put out by the IDF on Friday morning, the assessment is that Hamas fired the two rockets at Tel Aviv in error. (With a previous launch at Beersheba last October, it was said to be lightning that caused erroneous fire.)

According to the Hamas version, Thursday’s rockets were launched by a field operative acting without approval from the higher-ups. Plainly, this claim of an ill-disciplined field activist should raise skepticism and many questions, but on the Israeli side there is an understanding that the Hamas leadership is not interested in an escalation right now, nor in signaling some kind of warning with rocket fire at Tel Aviv.

Screen capture from video showing the Tel Aviv skyline on March 14 as rocket warning sirens blare after the launch of two rockets from the Gaza Strip (IDF)

At the very time the missiles were being fired, Hamas leaders in Gaza were meeting with a delegation of Egyptian intelligence officials, headed by Ahmad Abdelkhaliq, who is responsible for the Palestinian file. The likelihood that Hamas leaders wanted to launch missiles at that moment, of all moments, is remote. Hamas is urgently trying to attain economic concessions from Israel, not provoke it. It was only hours earlier that the dire economic situation in Gaza was publicly underlined, when Hamas police officers violently confronted dozens of demonstrators who had gone out into the streets to protest the poverty and hardship in the Strip under Hamas rule.

According to Palestinian and Egyptian assessments, any eased economic restrictions and concessions that Israel might allow will not dramatically change the situation in Gaza. But they might help to create a slightly more positive mood for the population, and perhaps even optimism as regards to the period after Israel’s elections in April.

What the Egyptians are trying to do is find a way to bring the Palestinian Authority back into Gaza somehow, in order to expedite some kind of rehabilitation of the Strip. Ironically, as the events of the past few hours indicate, it may well be that interaction aimed at reconstruction in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, even without the PA, may not be a mission impossible.

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