Hamas, Netanyahu Agree: Now Is Not the Time for War in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty
March 15, 2019

It was a normal night in Tel Aviv, one of the world's most vibrant cities. People were walking the streets and enjoying themselves, despite the rain. But then around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, warning sirens blared in Israel's coastal metropolis as residents heard explosions. Two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, marking the first time since 2014 that the Israeli city had been targeted. The rockets caused no damage or injuries, but the mayor ordered bomb shelters opened.

The Israeli military blamed Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist terror group in control of Gaza. But Hamas denied responsibility, as did Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terror group that operates in the coastal enclave. In retaliation, the Israel Defense Forces said that, overnight, its warplanes struck more than 100 military targets belonging to Hamas in Gaza. The targets included an underground rocket manufacturing facility, a military training site that served as Hamas's drone center, and the headquarters responsible for the planning and execution of attacks in the West Bank. During the airstrikes, the Israeli military said that Palestinians in Gaza launched nine projectiles at Israel, six of which the Jewish state's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted, causing sirens to be activated in Israeli communities bordering the Strip. There were no reports of damage or injuries, but shrapnel was discovered outside of a school in the city of Sderot.

After some confusion about how the initial rocket attack transpired, the IDF said Friday morning that it believes Hamas fired the rockets by mistake. It is unclear whether a technical malfunction or human error caused the mistake. Hamas, however, claimed that a field operative fired the rockets without approval from superiors.

Regardless, it is remarkable how restrained Israel's military response was to the rocket fire. After all, Tel Aviv is Israel's second largest city, a major financial hub, and home to IDF headquarters. And Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister and defense minister, seeks to portray himself as "Mr. Security," an image that has won him public support in the past. Yet Netanyahu and the Israeli government responded essentially as they would to Hamas launching rockets at smaller border communities: with limited, targeted strikes against military sites belonging to Hamas. There have been no reports of ground forces deployed in Gaza, or anything of the sort. Netanyahu is practicing what he so often preaches: that towns and cities located near Gaza are as important as Tel Aviv, and thus deserve an equal response when targeted.

But Netanyahu is also looking at domestic politics. The prime minister is in the middle of a heated election campaign and does not want to risk a crisis before Israelis vote on April 9. New polling predicts that Netanyahu's Likud Party, together with its expected right-wing allies and ultra-Orthodox parties, will be able to form a majority bloc of 64 seats out of the 120 total in Israel's Parliament, making Netanyahu the most likely candidate to serve as the next prime minister. With his position growing stronger in the polls, Netanyahu does not want to provoke a war against Hamas in Gaza. The consequences of such a conflict would be uncertain, and potentially damaging to his election prospects.

Some of Netanyahu's right-wing rivals have castigated his approach to Hamas, calling on the prime minister to take much harsher actions against the terror group. Obviously Netanyahu does not want to look weak just before an election, and Israelis may be more likely to support him if they are under attack. But, again, wars are unpredictable; no one knows what would happen.

Escalations leading to war would also undermine Netanyahu's policy of allowing millions of dollars worth of Qatari funds to be transferred to Gaza. Recent reports indicate that Netanyahu supports the transfers to keep Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank separate, and to ensure that the money, which previously came from the PA, goes to humanitarian causes rather than terrorism. Netanyahu's chief political opponents have blasted him for supporting the transfers, which he sees as a stabilizing policy in an environment of unpleasant choices.

For both political and strategic reasons, Netanyahu does not want war with Hamas to erupt at the moment, so he will try to look strong for his people without going too far and provoking a strong Palestinian response.

Hamas also does not want war with Israel, at least at the moment. The terror group "has no interest in an escalation," a Hamas official told the Times of Israel. If Hamas was interested in conflict, it would not have denied launching the rockets at Tel Aviv and then blamed it on some field operative. Moreover, when the rockets were fired, Hamas leaders in Gaza were meeting with Egyptian intelligence officials. It seems unlikely that the terror group would time the rocket launches on Tel Aviv to coincide with that meeting. At the moment, Hamas desperately wants economic assistance for Gaza—earlier in the day, its police violently stopped Gazans from protesting the enclave's horrid poverty—and is not looking for a war.

Palestinian media reported Friday that Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire mediated by Egypt to end the hours-long spurt of clashes. Israel has not confirmed the reports, but it seems that the fighting will stop for the moment. The status quo will remain—for now. The current situation has no good options, but both Hamas and Netanyahu can agree on at least one thing: now is not the time for a war in Gaza. Those calculations will likely change in the foreseeable future, however, and Israelis will be back to debating how to deal with an untenable situation: living next to a genocidal enemy that seeks their destruction.