Analysing the Political and Security Situation in Israel and Palestinian Territories
Introduction and Background
On 13 November, a ceasefire agreement was reached between Israel and Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, after 48 hours of intense exchanges of fire in the Gaza Strip.
Over 500 rockets and mortars were launched from the Strip into the Israeli territory, striking homes and buildings and injuring dozens of Israelis in the largest rocket barrage ever launched against southern Israel. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) responded with a series of strikes against several targets inside the Gaza Strip, including some multi-story buildings and three tunnels operated by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as the building of the Hamas-run television channel Al-Aqsa TV.
Necessary Mediation and External Assistance
Over the past months, Egypt, together with UN special envoy, have played a crucial role deploying efforts in a mediation between Israel and Gaza, in a context where the two sides don’t recognise each other, and therefore have always refused to negotiate directly. The ceasefire is likely to hold on a long-term with a solid support of Hamas and an Egyptian mediation. This agreement presumably followed the 2014 ceasefire agreement after seven weeks of destruction and loss life.
Another country to take part in this solution attempt is Qatar. On 8 November, Doha delivered USD15 million to Gaza through the Israeli territory, in order for Hamas to pay workers. Israel allowed this transfer only after receiving from Qatar the guarantee that the money will be transferred solely to pay the salaries of the civils servants of the Hamas government in the Strip. In addition, Israel is allegedly interested to promote the Qatari fund transfer to Hamas in order to avoid a humanitarian downfall that would inevitably reverberate on the Israeli communities along the Gaza border. A second USD15 million payment to Hamas for 30.000 Hamas officials’ salaries transfer was announced on 3 December, expected to be delivered on 4 December.
Negotiations with Hamas over a long-term ceasefire agreement require a serious funding source that will pay government salaries in Gaza after Palestinian President Mahmous Abbas refused to pay them with the Palestinian Authority treasury.
From Defense Minister Resignation to Cabinet Division
On 14 November Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced his resignation from his position following the ceasefire agreement, which he qualified of “a capitulation to terror”. He has been demanding more aggressive military action towards Gaza during the past month. Other right-wing members of the coalition were opposed to the deal, including Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, and Education Minister, Naftali Bennett.
Lieberman leads the right-wing Yisrael Beitenou party, which represents five seats at the Knesset. This termination brought the coalition to hold the tightest majority possible with 61 out of 120 seats, weakening it substantially. The ceasefire agreement reinforces the probability that other coalition members will resign. However, in a surprising move, after he threatened to quit if he was not appointed Defense Minister, Education Minister and Jewish Home party leader, Naftali Bennett, announced he would give PM Netanyahu another chance, and did not resign.
In the following days, both coalition and opposition members called for anticipated elections. Finance Minister, Moshe Kahlon, proposed to organise the Knesset’s dissolution and select a date for national elections.
The assumption that anticipated elections would be held in late 2018 was quickly countered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. According to a survey by Israel Television News Company, 74 percent of the public was disappointed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efficiency in responding to the escalation of violence with Hamas in the period 11-13 November. Although the elections are not due until November 2019, Lieberman’s resignation increases the likelihood of an earlier poll.
The coalition was already weakened by the involvement of PM Netanyahu and his wife Sara in several court cases, mainly for bribery and corruption. In fact, the police on 2 December recommended to indict them over bribery. The decision of an indictment or not remains to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. On 8 November, the police recommended the indictment for bribery in the Case 3000, against several former senior IDF officers, a former government minister and against two close associates of PM Netanyahu.
Lieberman Resignation in the Gaza Strip
Hundreds of Palestinians of the Gaza Strip gathered outside top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s home to celebrate Lieberman’s resignation, which was seen as a victory for the Hamas and military defeats for Israel. Palestinian group’s spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared that this resignation is a “recognition of defeat and failure to confront the Palestinian resistance,” adding that “Gaza’s steadfastness sent a political shockwave through Israel.”
The Special IDF Operation in the Gaza Strip
On 11 November, IDF soldiers entered the Gaza Strip using fake IDs of Gaza residents. The special unit was exposed while in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, allegedly because of their accent after they were controlled at a Hamas checkpoint. Their exposure led to a fire exchange in which an Israeli lieutenant along with, at least, seven Palestinian were killed. No abductions were reported.
On 2 December, Hamas security forces arrested several people over the suspicion of their involvement and collaboration with Israel in this operation. Six people were sentenced to death by the military court in Gaza.
The ceasefire agreement is likely to hold under Hamas and Egyptian mediation, as well as with the financial support from Gulf-based funders, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Lately, Netanyahu has prioritised building closer diplomatic and economic relationships with Gulf states. Hamas is probably willing to stay away from further escalation because its rocket barrages, which involved very high costs to the Hamas, did not result in enough Israel fatalities.
Additionally, outside a war scenario, PM Netanyahu is unlikely to send ground forces to Gaza for a continued military operation which may lead to a larger salvo of rocket fire into Israel. The current unpredictability regarding the future structure of the Israeli government along with the pressure from the Israeli right-wing on the Prime Minister make this scenario unclear. Although the coalition is still holding the majority, this is the tightest possible and therefore PM Netanyahu is likely to call early elections within the first six months of 2019.