Israel-Gaza Hostilities Test Netanyahu’s Hard-Right Government

REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in Gaza May 2, 2023.

JERUSALEM – Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, exchanged fire overnight into Wednesday, killing a Palestinian man and posing a daunting security test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government after four tumultuous months in power.

The government’s new extremist cabinet members have previously called for aggressive responses to rocket fire from Gaza, including assassinating top Hamas leaders – moves that could dramatically escalate the situation.

So far, however, the limited airstrikes and cease-fire ending the hostilities have followed the usual pattern governing exchanges of fire, and Netanyahu has asserted that he will remain in control. In the southern towns that have long been strongholds for right-wing parties – and where people spent the night ducking into bomb shelters – residents expressed disappointment at the relatively restrained military response.

“Was it for this that Netanyahu formed a government?” Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern city of Sderot, said in an interview with Kan Radio. “You don’t restore security by limp actions.”

Wednesday’s cross-border firefight followed the death of a prominent member of the Islamic Jihad militant group, Khader Adnan, in an Israeli prison after an 87-day hunger strike, which Palestinian officials called a “deliberate assassination.”

Since Tuesday, more than 100 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. Four landed in an urban area and three people were hospitalized with shrapnel wounds.

Israel retaliated by attacking 16 targets in Gaza in two separate waves of airstrikes, including Hamas weapon-manufacturing sites, outposts, military training complexes and an underground tunnel, according to an Israeli military statement. “We have attacked every goal we set for ourselves,” said military spokesman Daniel Hagari.

The Israeli army did not comment on the Gazan man who was killed, 58-year-old Hashel Mubarak. His family said he was fatally injured by falling bricks after the bombardment of a militant training field next to their house. Hamas organized a funeral for him on Wednesday.

The overnight hostilities ended with a cease-fire brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, according to Israeli media, which went into effect around 4 a.m. local time. It has mostly held, with the exception of one rocket launched from Gaza. On Wednesday morning, schools and businesses in Gaza and southern Israel opened as normal.

But the flare-up with Gaza has set the stage for a potential escalation, Israeli analysts say, as far-right politicians in top security positions push for a more aggressive response.

“This confrontation was incidental and expected,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But it has also spurred “the regrouping of Netanyahu, who wants to get invited to the White House . . . and also the regrouping of the hard right, which is angry that the government is not doing what it was elected to do.”

The most powerful hard-liners in Netanyahu’s coalition are Bezalel Smotrich, who has a special position in the Defense Ministry, and Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister of national security, who has roots in the radical settler movement and for years has called for “heads to roll in Gaza.”

Ben Gvir was not invited to a meeting with the Netanyahu to discuss the security situation on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he announced that his Jewish Power party would meet in Sderot, on the border with Gaza, and would boycott Knesset votes over what he called Israel’s “weak” response to the rocket fire.

In a rare rebuke, Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement saying that “the prime minister is the one who decides who is a relevant participant in Knesset discussions. If this is unacceptable to Minister Ben Gvir, he does not have to remain in the government.” Ben Gvir responded that Netanyahu “is welcome to fire us if he doesn’t want a full right-wing government.”

An alarmed Smotrich then tweeted out a video statement. “My friends and partners in the government and coalition, let’s calm down!” he said. “We must keep the government united, so as not to give a reward to terrorism or bring the left, with the terrorism supporters, to power.”

As its leaders fight among themselves, Israel faces a complex, multi-front, profoundly interconnected series of challenges. In the occupied West Bank, new militant groups have sprouted up over the past year as thousands of young Palestinians take up arms, disillusioned by their aging and corrupt leadership and enraged by frequent Israeli military raids that have killed both militants and civilians.

In Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are working on rebuilding their rocket supply, once suffocated by the blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt.

Domestically, the government’s pledge to overhaul the judiciary has sparked an unprecedented political crisis, as hundreds of thousands of citizens, including many high-ranking active and reserve soldiers, have taken to the streets in protest.

Last month, militant groups in Lebanon – where Israel’s regional nemesis Iran has been storing weapons and providing military training – lobbed a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, sending people into bomb shelters.

Security analysts agree that the latest wave of violence is not yet over, even though Adnan’s widow has appealed for calm, telling The Washington Post that the family did “not want to see more bloodshed.”

But Israel has not yet returned Adnan’s body to his family, according to a statement Wednesday by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who added that, in Adnan’s name, the group’s fighters would “not hesitate to fulfill their duty of resisting the Israeli occupation.”