Israel avoided early elections after a key coalition partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said that he would not withdraw his party, keeping the coalition intact despite a crisis triggered by a violent flare-up with Gaza militants. Education Minister Naftali Bennett said his hard-line, pro-settler Jewish Home party would give Mr Netanyahu another chance to address the security challenges facing Israel, listing threats from Gaza and Lebanon, among others, which he wanted dealt with more firmly. (AP News)
Hamas tactics over the years
Since its inception in 1987, Hamas (the Gaza-based terror organisation) has not wavered from its stated intention to “liberate all of Palestine”. What has shifted is the strategy used to accomplish this goal. During the ‘Second Intifada’ (2000-2005), suicide bombings and drive-by shootings were the norm. But as Israel blocked opportunities to perpetrate such attacks, mainly through the construction of the security barrier, Hamas’ preferred weapon became the rockets that gave Israeli border communities just 15 seconds to seek cover. The 2005 unilateral withdrawal of Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip, seen by Israel and other countries as a peace gesture, was perceived as a victory by Hamas and an incentive to intensify their rocket barrages at Israeli towns and cities. Introduced in 2011, the ‘Iron Dome’ missile interception system soon eroded the effectiveness of rockets as a strategy and in response, Hamas went underground – literally. Tunnels within Gaza and under the Israel-Gaza border became a battle strategy for Hamas and in the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Israel discovered 14 “attack tunnels” that crossed the border. This type of tunnel struck fear into the hearts of many residents in close proximity to the border.
By 2018, Israeli technology had caught up with this threat, and as Israel successfully started to locate and destroy such tunnels (14 in 2018 so far), a new Hamas strategy and threat to Israel emerged. Since March, thousands of Gaza residents have massed weekly (and sometimes more frequently) at points along the border, in what were dubbed “peace marches”. Attempts to swarm and breach the border fence are accompanied by the burning of tyres, sending incendiary balloons and kites across the border, and even imitating the incoming rocket alert system (Red Alert) to cause Israelis to run for cover. The incendiary devices have caused massive damage to crops and nature reserves. Israel’s determination to defend its border and citizens through clearly defined “no-go” zones, crowd control measures and, in the final instance, sharp-shooters, has resulted in over 150 fatalities on the Palestinian side and enraged many.
Events that led to the recent political crisis
The simmering tensions in Gaza and southern Israel have seen numerous flare-ups this year, but on Sunday 11 November, an undercover Israeli unit was intercepted in Gaza. An ensuing firefight, in which Israeli tanks and aircraft opened fire, left seven Palestinian militants and one Israeli soldier dead. Hamas responded by unleashing over 400 rockets and mortars at Israel over the next 48 hours – the heaviest barrage since the two sides fought in 2014. Israel responded with 160 air strikes, targeting militant sites in Gaza. Gaza residents reported that Israel had launched low-yield munition warning strikes (what locals call “roof knocks”) on targets before bombing them. This gives civilians several minutes to clear the structure before it is destroyed and may account for the relatively low fatality count.
These ongoing attacks have caused mounting pressure on the Israeli government to take more drastic action as citizens increasingly feel that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror entities operating out of Gaza do so with impunity. High school students from the south, who have contended with the cross-border terror all their lives, added to the pressure by undertaking a 90km walk from the Israeli town of Sderot (the target of the most rockets) to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in Jerusalem. By the time they arrived, their numbers had swelled to 6,000.
Israel’s nine-person security cabinet met in a marathon session to debate an informal Hamas ceasefire deal. The cabinet was divided between those seeking more drastic action against Hamas and those seeking to limit an escalation. Despite the blockades around Gaza to prevent the entry of more sophisticated weaponry, it is apparent that such weaponry is in the hands of Hamas and that more drastic action on Israel’s part would bring about a repeat of the 2014 conflict when Hamas rockets disrupted Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and even caused a temporary closure of Israel’s key Ben Gurion International Airport. Despite differences of opinion, the decision was taken to accept the ceasefire.
On Tuesday 13 November, Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire after Egyptian and UN mediation. According to Bernard Avishai (The New Yorker), the ceasefire agreement (which has been in the works for a number of months already) should lead to “Hamas tamping down the border violence in exchange for Israel’s commitment to a freer movement of goods into, and people out of, Gaza, and to more predictable fuel deliveries, to allow for more predictable electricity production.” He carries on: “The deal is preliminary. But it amounts to clear, if tentative, steps toward a relaxing of the blockade, which has been tightening since 2007, in return for a more certain calm in Israel’s border communities.”
Israel’s hard-line defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had demanded a far stronger response to the massive wave of rocket fire, resigned in protest of the ceasefire that ended the fighting. Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party’s departure left Mr Netanyahu’s coalition with a razor slim one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Education minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party (another coalition partner), then threatened to bring down the government if he was not appointed defence minister. Hamas hailed the political fallout as a victory.
Early elections averted
Mr Netanyahu came under heavy criticism for agreeing to the ceasefire, especially from within his own political base and in the working-class, rocket-battered southern Israeli towns that are typically strongholds of his Likud Party. Mr Netanyahu worked feverishly over the weekend to shore up his governing coalition after Lieberman’s resignation and Bennett’s threat to follow. In an impassioned speech on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu announced his new role as defence minister, reiterating his credentials and track record when it comes to Israeli security. He encouraged his coalition partners not to repeat what he called “the historic mistake of ’92”, when right-wing parties toppled a right-wing government and brought the left back to power.
Bennett appears to have heeded Mr Netanyahu’s warnings and his about-face eased the most serious coalition crisis Israel’s government has faced since it was formed in 2015. Bennett acknowledged that the turnaround could hurt him politically, but said he felt it was in the country’s interests to give Mr Netanyahu one last chance. Mr Netanyahu has won four elections. If he remains in office past 31 May 2019, he will surpass Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
One of the major divisive issues within the Christian community relates to the modern re-establishment of Israel. Proponents of ‘replacement theology’ and ‘supercessionism’ essentially teach that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan. In contrast, ‘dispensationalism’ teaches that Israel as a nation will embrace Jesus as their Messiah towards the end of the ‘Great Tribulation’, right before the ‘Second Coming’, and that God will restore Israel as the primary focus of His plan.
Regardless of theological preferences or doctrinal convictions – whether one is a supercesssionist, a classical dispensationalist, a progressive dispensationalist, a premillennialist, a postmillennialist, a Messianic Jew or a believer who chooses to remain neutral – one principle rings true through Scripture: Israel, and the Church for that matter, is “elected” by God. This is not for the sake of their own importance, interest or prosperity, but they exist to be a blessing to all nations on earth. Genesis 12:2 says: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Paul writes in Galatians 3:8: “Through you, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”
It then becomes apparent that the failure in finding a path to peace and resolution to the conflict is the greatest threat to the future of Israel and Palestine. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem as Scripture commands is more about the world than it is about Israel, and this concerns us all.