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November 26, 2018 10:28 am

Did Israeli Ceasefire Strengthen Hamas for the Next Round of Fighting?

avatar by Ariel Ben Solomon / JNS.org

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Smoke and fire rise from the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza, Nov. 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ahmed Zakot.

JNS.orgThe ongoing violence perpetrated by Hamas had an unintended consequence — in effect, it caused an internal political crisis in Israel, shaking up the government, and both angering and worrying the general public. Because of that instability, Hamas is claiming victory, and even taking credit for it.

The terrorist organization achieved three main things by its ongoing attacks: demonstrating that Israel’s deterrence in the form of military retribution by the IDF has been weakened, destabilizing Israel’s government, and gaining a $60 million contribution from Qatar. Hamas can now continue arming itself with more advanced weaponry, preparing itself for the next round of fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a ceasefire with Hamas, but not without a domestic cost. Israelis were infuriated at the continued onslaught — southern cities, towns, and farmland have been plagued by arson fires and Palestinian rioters attempting to breach the Israeli-Gaza border since March — which prompted Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to resign. That action set off a week-long frenzy that many believed would culminate in early elections.

As usual, Netanyahu used his diplomatic skills to maintain his coalition, even garnering the post of defense minister for himself. But a substantial number of Israelis are disappointed with the government’s handling of the rocket attacks, saying the response (or lack of one) only encouraged the enemy. Social media was replete with sarcasm on the weakness of Israel’s reaction.

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The prime minister would have entered early elections with a weak hand and been attacked from the right, but now that the crisis appears to be over, Netanyahu has a full year to work on his image. In Israel, a year is a long time — much can happen, including the fading of voters’ memories.

One person who tried to jump on the demoralizing bandwagon was Jewish Home party head and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who attempted to ride the populist wave of frustration by attacking Netanyahu from the right and demanding the defense portfolio to fix the army’s deficiencies.

“For quite a few years now, including over the last decade of the ‎governments headed by Netanyahu, Israel has stopped winning,” said Bennett. “‎We restrain and restrain our troops, and our soldiers are now more afraid of the military ‎advocate general than of [Hamas military leader] Yahya Sinwar.”

Daniel Pipes, a historian and president of the Middle East Forum, said: “I understand that the prime minister is looking at the larger threats in Israel’s north and beyond that to Iran, and I respect that. But timid Israeli actions prolong Palestinian rejectionism, and Hamas having plausibly declared victory makes it stronger.”

“A Palestinian defeat — an end of conflict — is now more remote,” he added.

Still, many in Israel’s defense establishment and other experts backed Netanyahu’s plan to calm the storm, and don’t see a loss in deterrence, since Israel remains much more powerful.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council and currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said, “The declarations that Hamas won may lead Hamas to the very wrong conclusion that we are weak and irresolute.”

Looking at how Israelis reacted to Lieberman’s resignation, “you could easily [think they came to] the same conclusion,” said Lerman.

“This can indeed have dangerous consequences unless we take preemptive actions to make the public realize that the next round may look quite different,” continued Lerman. “The IDF’s ability to hit targets without a massive loss of life should be read as a sign of highly developed capability, not of timidity.”

The issue could resurface at any time of Hamas’ choosing. In the future, Hamas could use what it learned in this round of fighting to its advantage, thinking that Israel is reluctant to go to war right now. It may test those limits, seeing how far it can go to create internal Israeli tensions without provoking an all-out military clash.

Ariel Ben Solomon is the Deputy Online Editor of JNS.

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