Netanyahu balances on Gaza tightrope

By Jean-Luc Renaudie ,AFP

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu, initially accused by Israel’s most ardent hawks of dithering over Hamas rocket fire, appears to have found at least a temporary political balance with his punishing air campaign against Gaza. But rivals on the far-right are still snapping at him, some demanding that he strangle the densely populated and impoverished Palestinian enclave by cutting off electricity, fuel and food, and others insisting he send in troops and reoccupy it. And there is still the unknown factor of how Hamas might turn up the heat. It already hiked tensions sharply this week by firing rockets at major cities and towns across the country, but has so far not killed a single Israeli. The latest crisis began in June, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank.

Netanyahu blamed Hamas and embarked on a punishing campaign against the Islamist group, arresting hundreds of its members in the West Bank and attacking its infrastructure there. During the arrest campaign, six Palestinians were killed, further raising tensions as militants in Gaza stepped up their rocket fire. Just days after the teenagers’ bodies were found on June 30, the situation took a turn for the worse. A Palestinian of similar age was kidnapped from east Jerusalem and burned to death in a suspected revenge crime by Jewish extremists. That brutal murder triggered a wave of angry protest in east Jerusalem and across Arab towns in Israel, and further fire from Gaza.

Netanyahu came under pressure from the hawks to hit back hard.

Pressure from the Hawks Rightwing nationalist foreign minister and Netanyahu coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman demanded that the premier invade Gaza and reoccupy it. Netanyahu baulked. So Lieberman pulled out of his parliamentary alliance with the premier’s Likud party. Netanyahu has also been urged by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the rightwing religious party Jewish Home, to respond harshly. But while pledging to do “whatever is necessary”, Netanyahu has called on his cabinet and, by extension, the populace, to keep a cool head and not give way to “harsh words and impetuousness”. On Tuesday, Netanyahu unleashed Operation Protective Edge, a relentless air assault on Gaza in response to continuing rocket fire. So far, it has killed 103 Palestinians, including many women and children, and wounded hundreds. In reaction, says public commentator Hanan Cristal, “everybody (in Israel) is now playing the national unity card”. “Netanyahu’s position now is even stronger because he is showing a united front with Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz.” “Right now he’s reassuring because he gives the impression of not having an itchy trigger finger,” Cristal concludes.