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Netanyahu backs down fast over most brutal attack from Gaza

  • Paula
The timing of the Gaza flareup this past weekend was not co-incidental.
by PAULA SLIER | May 09, 2019

This week and next are busy on the Israeli calendar. They include Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, the one year anniversary of the relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the Palestinian commemoration of Naqba. It all culminates in the Eurovision song festival next week.

The last thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs or wants is to scare off about 20 000 tourists expected to descend on Tel Aviv for the world’s largest song contest. Last year, 186 million viewers worldwide watched the show.

International bands have already arrived in the country, rehearsals are taking place, and organisers are at pains to stress that the show will go on. Although there’ve been no cancellations recorded by tourist agencies so far, there are, of course, concerns that violence could overshadow the merriment. The Israeli foreign ministry has repeatedly insisted the country will be calm and safe.

This year’s Eurovision has been clouded with controversy since Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won last year’s contest with the hit song Toy. The rules of the competition dictate that the next festival be held in the winner’s country’s capital – in this case Jerusalem. But European officials were reluctant to hold it there for fear it could politicise the event because of the disputed status of the city.

Arab parliamentarians were vocal that, as Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen, said, “the right-wing Israeli government should continue to be punished for its crimes against the Palestinian people and the constant denial of basic rights, in utter contrast to the position of the Europeans and other nations”.

Conflicting reports from within Israel also suggested a “lack of venue” in Jerusalem. Talking to Israelis at the time, most insisted that because Jerusalem was the capital it was only right that the contest be held there. But others were ambivalent, saying that it didn’t matter where the competition was held, as long as it was in Israel. Four cities vied for hosting rights – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat.

The contest, first held in 1956, has never been cancelled nor had its location moved prior to the event. Its executive producer, Jon Ola Sand, admits there are always attempts to politicise Eurovision, and the noise around it being held in Israel was to be expected.

Now, with days to go before the gala event opens, the issue is back on the agenda, after more than 700 rockets were fired by Hamas over the course of two days.

Fifty rockets were fired in the space of one minute on Ashdod, Ashkelon, and other cities in the south of the country. Four Israelis were killed, the highest casualty on the Israeli side since the last Gaza war in 2014.

Hamas initiated the flareup on Friday, presumably expecting the Israeli response to be more muted than it turned out to be, precisely because of the reasons stated above. But Netanyahu responded forcibly, hitting hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad sites, including Hamas’ military intelligence and general security offices.

Twenty-five Palestinians were killed, including two pregnant women and two toddlers (the Israel Defense Forces claims they were killed by a rocket launcher and not by one of their missiles), and more than 150 Palestinians were injured.

Israel resumed its policy of targeted killings by hitting a vehicle in which a high-ranking Hamas fighter responsible for transferring money from Iran to various groups in Gaza was travelling. Tank reinforcements were sent to the border, but at no time was it expected that there would be a ground invasion.

Instead, as anticipated, Netanyahu was quick to end the escalation. He wants to get through the next two weeks with as little drama as possible and then presumably, according to most experts I spoke to, “hit Hamas hard”.

But, of course, he’s facing the inevitable political fallout.

Blue and White party leader and former IDF Chief Benny Gantz says the truce reportedly agreed to by Israel and Hamas early on Monday morning is a capitulation from the Israelis that will lead to more fighting. Opposition from within Netanyahu’s Likud party criticised him for gaining nothing while Palestinian organisations increased their attacks on Israel.

Perhaps the most telling comment is from Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, who warned that Jerusalem had lost its deterrence in Gaza.

“We are in a serious bind because our values are being confused,” he said. “This round began after an IDF officer was shot, not because of rocket launches.”

Indeed, the escalation began when two Israeli soldiers were wounded by Gaza gunfire near the border on Friday. A retaliatory Israeli air strike killed two militants from Hamas while two other Palestinians protesting near the fence were also killed.

That there will be a next round of violence between the sides is a fact. The only question is when.

Hamas is threatening that if Israel does not commit to lifting the siege on Gaza, the next round is only a matter of time. It has also threatened to target Tel Aviv, which is why on Sunday night Tel Aviv, Netanya, Kfar Saba, and other cities in the centre of the country opened their public bomb shelters. It is a certainty that Hamas rockets can reach that far.

Egyptian mediation efforts for a long-term truce are expected to continue. While the Israeli government has refused to confirm whether it was party to Monday’s ceasefire, the IDF announced it was lifting all security restrictions for residents living in southern Israel. The situation has since been calm.

Jerusalem wants to avoid publicly acknowledging it’s holding negotiations with Hamas whom it regards as a terrorist organisation. Arabic media, however, reported that Israel had agreed to ease its blockade of Gaza, especially in regard to the electricity, fuel, and fishing situation in the strip.

It’s worth mentioning that an interim government is still in place in Israel. Netanyahu continues to hold talks with different party leaders to form a coalition majority.

According to past Supreme Court rulings, an interim government should act “with restraint in using its authority for all matters that are not necessary or have special urgency”.

Following the bloodiest weekend on the Israeli side in five years, and with Islamic Jihad vowing to stop Eurovision from going ahead, it certainly seems that the weekend’s violence has special urgency. It’s thus unlikely that this was the reason Netanyahu stepped back from launching a massive operation in Gaza.

No, rather when the laughs and cheers of Eurovision die down, Israelis might be bracing for a deadly encore. The current situation between Israel and Hamas is untenable, and most Israelis agree that something needs to be done.

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