How Hamas (almost) Brought Down Israel’s Netanyahu Government

Peace between Hamas and Israel seemed closer than ever on November 10 when the two parties reportedly reached a long term peace agreement. These prospects for peace came crashing down the very next day after violence broke out in Southern Israel and Hamas waged its largest ever rocket barrage from the Gaza strip. Much to the discontent of Israelis civilians and politicians alike, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) refused to enter Gaza and reached a ceasefire with Hamas. Though the fighting has stopped, turmoil in Israel has turned inward. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s weak response to Hamas has lead to political crisis and the near collapse of Israel’s governing coalition.

First, a look at who is Hamas and how they differ from the Palestinian Authority. There are two main centers of Palestinian population: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Since the 1995 Oslo II Accords and the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, Palestinians have had political autonomy in the Gaza Strip and partial political control over the West Bank. These two bodies of Palestinian population have been politically divided since the 2006. In a political upset, Hamas beat out the Fatah party for control of the Palestinian Authority. Founded in 1987, Hamas is a Palestinian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, and several Arab states. According Hamas’ recently updated charter, “The Islamic Resistance Movement ‘Hamas’ is a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement. Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project.” Following the 2006 elections for control of the Palestinian Authority, a joint Palestinian government was formed between Hamas and Fatah. However, fundamental differences lead to war between the two factions. In the 2007 Battle of Gaza, Hamas seized military control over the Gaza Strip, while Fatah ousted Hamas members from the West Bank. Currently, Hamas governs Gaza and the Fatah led Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank. Since 2006, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel. Recent months, however, have seen a repeated pattern of Hamas-lead rocket attacks, Israeli retribution, followed by an Egyptian mediated cease-fire.

In the past months, Hamas and Israel have come to the negotiating table in order to end the waves of violence which has dominated their relationship since March. Under Egyptian mediation, Israel has already made some concessions, including the transfer of Qatari funded fuel into the Gaza Strip and the delivery of $15 million to pay Gazan civil servants. On November 10, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar indicated that a preliminary agreement between Hamas and Israel had been reached to substrainally ease the Israeli imposed blockade on the Gaza Strip. The agreement reportedly called for the establishment of a sea passage from Cyprus to Gaza to facilitate controlled trade in Gaza. Though statements by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar appear to go against these claims, Sinwar has also recently indicated to Italian media that a “historic opportunity for change” was imminent. These prospects for peace came tumbling down the next day when violence exploded in the Gaza Strip.

On November 11, a lengthy undercover mission in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force’s Maglan Unit was exposed by Hamas militants. The resulting firefight between Hamas security forces and the IDF special forces team lead to the death of a high ranking Israeli intelligence officer and the death of a prominent Hamas leader. Hamas radio transcripts of the event as it unfolded, leaked to Israel’s Hadashot news, appear to give the most accurate picture of the events. On the evening of November 11, members of Israel’s elite Maglan unit drove into the Gazan city of Khan Younis, two miles from the Israeli border. According to radio transcripts, Hamas security officials initially identified the Israeli team’s car as a criminal gang or rival militia. “To all forces and positions, a blue Volkswagen is driving suspiciously and very fast near the Islamic University,” one Hamas official stated over the radio. Hamas forces began tailing the Israeli operatives and a high speed chase through the streets of Khan Younis ensued. At some point during the chase, the IDF team opened fire on their pursuers and called in for air support to aid their evacuation. Only at this point did the Hamas militants realize that they were facing Israelis. One Hamas member stated over the radio, “Fighter jets are suddenly above us. Everyone be careful. Listen carefully to our instructions. They’re Jews.” Shortly after, Hamas forces converged and opened fire on the Volkswagen (video). An Israeli Lieutenant Colonel, identified only by the name M, was struck and mortally wounded by Hamas fire. Lt. Col. M was a member of Israel’s Druze religious minority, a ultra-nationalistic group often recruited to undercover missions due to their Arab appearance and fluency. Following Lt. Col. M’s death, the IDF team confronted the militants, neutralizing the entire seven member Hamas force. Among the Hamas members killed was Nour Baraka, a regional leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam brigades. Under Israeli air force cover, the Israeli operatives then fled to a waiting helicopter.

In a statement to Al-Aqsa TV, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya described the mission as an attempt to plant a listening device in the house of Baraka. This motive behind the mission appears likely, according to Major General Tal Russo, former head of the IDF’s Southern Command and veteran of the Maglan Unit. Maj. Gen. Russo suggests that the operation was aimed at gathering intelligence on the construction of Hamas tunnel systems, a program which Baraka coordinated.  

Israel faced immediate retribution from Hamas for their exposed activity in the Gaza Strip. Within two hours of the operation’s exposure, seventeen rockets were fired at Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza border. Tensions escalated at 4:30 pm the following day when Hamas militants fired a Kornet anti-tank missile at an Israeli bus. Video shows a group of soldiers exiting the vehicle near Kibbutz Kfar Azza, three miles from the Gaza border. Moments later, the laser guided anti-tank missile struck the bus, seriously injuring the nineteen year old Israeli-Arab driver. This use of anti-tank missiles constitutes a major escalation in the conflict between Hamas and Israel and has not been seen since Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas.  Concurrent with the anti-tank attack, Hamas began a barrage of rockets targeted at the Israeli city of Sderot and other border towns. Between 4:30 pm and 5 pm, Hamas fired over twenty rockets at Israeli civilian communities near the Gaza border. One rocket struck a house in Sderot, wounding the occupant.

In response to the Hamas violence, the Israeli Defense Force began targeting seventy terrorist sites on the Gaza Strip. These sites included terror tunnels, military compounds, weapons manufacturing facilities, and rocket launch pads. The strikes also targeted the home of Hamas Interior Minister Avi Abdallah Lafi and the headquarters of Hamas’ propaganda wing, Al-Aqsa TV. Though fighting was intense at this point, it was not substantially different from the many waves of rocket attacks that Israel has faced in past months.

Following the Israeli response, Hamas violence escalated to levels never before seen from the Gaza Strip. By 7 pm, Hamas began to fire rockets in an intense bombardment of Israeli population centers, reaching as far into Israel as the Dead Sea, 50 miles from the Gaza Strip. Into the night of November 12, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad terror group launched 460 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Rockets destroyed Israeli sites include a gas pipeline and a bakery in Sderot. Rockets also reached Ashkelon, Southern Israel’s third largest city, destroying a residential house and apartment complex. One resident of the Ashkelon apartment building, a Palestinian man from Hebron, was killed upon the rocket’s impact and another woman was seriously injured. In total, 53 Israeli civilians were injured by the barrage.

After a day of intense bombardment, the Israeli Security Cabinet met for six hours on November 13 to decide how Israel should proceed in Gaza. Following the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would agree to an Egyptian-UN mediated ceasefire with Hamas. “Everyone, without exception, supported” the ceasefire, according to statements made by Netanyahu. This narrative, however, was disputed by four ministers present at the meeting: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a veteran of the Maglan unit. The ministers claim to have opposed the cease fire and supported tougher action following the historic attack from the Gaza Strip. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman took this opposition even further. On November 14, Lieberman resigned from his post as Defense Minister and pulled his far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. “Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look Southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman stated, calling the cease fire a “capitulation to terror.” Following Lieberman’s resignation, Israel’s Channel 2 conducted polling which shows strong support for the resignation and deep dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s response in Gaza. The poll found that 74% of Israelis disapprove of Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza while 64% of Israelis are against the cease fire. To understand the effects of Lieberman’s resignation and the following political crisis, we need to first look at how Israel’s political system functions.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral parliament, called the Knesset. The Knesset has 120 members who are elected to four year terms through a party-list proportional representation system. This means that Israelis vote for political parties directly and not individual candidates. Each party that gains over 3.25% of the popular vote receives a proportionate number of seats and each Member of Knesset (MK) represents the country at-large. The low threshold for entry into the Knesset necessitates the formation of coalition governments, governments composed of several political parties. If the governing coalition loses its majority, at least 61 seats, a vote of no-confidence can be passed and early elections are called. Unlike the American political system, Israel ministries are lead by legislators belonging to the governing coalition. Each MK can lead multiple ministries, forming a ministerial portfolio. Prior to Lieberman’s resignation, Netanyahu lead a right-wing governing coalition with 66 members and six parties: Netanyahu’s Likud party, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, Naftali Bennet’s Habayit Hayehudi party, Aryeh Deri’s Shas party, and Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party.  

After Lieberman’s resignation from the governing coalition, Netanyahu is left with a bare minimum coalition government, 61 seats. The integrity of this coalition was put into doubt when the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu in response to the open Defense Minister post. “Without the defense portfolio, Habayit Hayehudi will not continue as partner in government,” Habayit Hayehudi spokesperson Shuli Moalem asserted, demanding that Netanyahu appoint Bennett as Defense Minister or lose his coalition majority. Without Habayit Hayehudi’s eight Knesset seats, the Netanyahu coalition would collapse and early elections would be called. It seemed like Israel would be headed to the polls after Netanyahu’s other coalition partners, Deri and Kahlon, called for early elections in the wake of Lieberman’s resignation. Opposition parties even began the process by introducing three bills to dissolve the Knesset. Netanyahu, however, has indicated that he will go to any length to avoid early elections, seeing the possibility that a left-wing party could replace his right-wing government. This fear is well founded based on Israeli political history. In 1991, several right wing parties left Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing government due to his participation in the Madrid Peace Conference. The resulting elections lead to the rise of a left wing government and the signing of the Oslo Accords by Yitzhak Rabin. Following Bennett’s ultimatum, Netanyahu worked what seemed to be political magic. In a dramatic press conference on November 19, Bennett revoked his ultimatum, temporarily preserving Netanyahu’s governing coalition. “In the end, I preferred to put the country above politics,” Bennett stated, adding that “if the prime minister is true to his words, and I want to believe that he will be, then we will stand by his side.” In place of appointing Bennett as Defense Minister, Netanyahu has assumed the role himself and now holds five ministerial roles: Primer Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defence, Minister of Health, and Minister of Immigration.

Though Netanyahu has averted the collapse of his coalition, not all political peril has been allayed. Chaos broke out in the Knesset after the opposition acted out in defiance against Netanyahu and broke a standing gentlemen’s agreement with the governing coalition. In typical Knesset protocol, one opposition member will refrain from voting for each coalition member missing. During the first day of voting after Lieberman’s resignation, the opposition refused to remove any members despite nineteen coalition member being absent. This gave the opposition a 47 to 42 majority. Members of Knesset rushed to the speaker’s podium in an attempt to retract the bill, a minor zoning measure. The Knesset’s legal counsel, however, did not allow it to be retracted and the the bill was voted down. In an attempt to prevent such a situation from happening again, both the leaders of the opposition and the governing coalition have barred their members from travelling abroad so that every member is present for every vote. Further, the coalition pulled most of their bills from the Knesset agenda. This newfound brinkmanship faced by the Knesset was epitomized on November 21 when a bill to dissolve the government nearly passed due to the illness of a coalition MK. Sharren Haskel, a Likud member, had been undergoing treatment at Meir Hospital in Central Israel. Haskel was rushed to the Knesset with an IV still in her arm when it became clear that a bill to dissolve the Knesset might pass without her vote. Though the coalition appears safe for now, the opposition is not backing down from their attempt to bring early elections. “We took down the bill to dissolve the Knesset, but we will not take the subject off the public agenda,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni announced. “The prime minister knows that if we go to an election, he won’t win.”

Though Hamas was unsuccessful in provoking an all out war with Israel, Hamas still succeeded in bringing down the Israeli government. At his latest Likud party meeting, Netanyahu stated that “in times like these, you do not overthrow a government. It’s irresponsible.” This could not be further from the truth. By delaying elections a full year, the Israeli government will only be running at half speed. A government cannot fully function without allowing it’s parliament members to travel abroad. Diplomacy is essential to Israel’s geopolitical situation yet is weakened under the current Knesset brinkmanship. The limited agenda set by the coalition even further limits the productivity of the Knesset. Netanyahu believes that elections would stall Israel at a moment critical to Israel security; however, he cannot see that the government is already stalled. Lieberman describes this situation aptly, calling Netanyahu’s response a “capitulation to terror.”

Netanyahu justifies stalling the Israeli government by asserting that a left-wing government could rise in his place. Under Israel’s current security situation, however, a left-wing government would not be substantially different from the Netanyahu administration. When 460 missiles rain down on a country’s populace and when scores of civilians are injured by Hamas terror, Israel must exercise its right to self defense. Another war will not fix Israel’s problems with Hamas. It certainly did not fix Israel’s problems in 2008, 2012, or 2014. Yet, Israel cannot accept the status quo. This would be the equivalent of setting the lives of its civilians in the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. According to Israeli Major General Ami Ayalon, Netanyahu’s inaction on Gaza was due to international perception. “The war of today is not won on the battlefield but victory is achieved in the eyes of spectators all over the world,” Ayalon stated. Should Israel enter Gaza with its defense forces, it will undoubtedly face international condemnations for genocide and war crimes against the Palestinian people no matter what actions it pursues. We cannot forget, however, that the three Israelis who were critically injured or killed in the latest bombardment by Hamas were all Israeli-Arabs: a Druze intelligence officer, a 40 year old Palestinian from Hebron, and an Israeli-Arab teenager. If Israel does not defend itself, Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis alike suffer. By governing for another year, Netanyahu allows Hamas to declare victory while ignoring the Israeli people who, as polling shows, demand stronger action on Gaza. Israel must go to early elections in order to preserve a functioning government. And it must go to early elections to choose a leader capable of effective policy on Gaza. Netanyahu’s current response only grants Hamas victory while incentivising further conflict.

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