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Netanyahu free to act without fear of political repercussions

By the end of a week which had witnessed an escalation in the violence in Gaza, the Israelis had had enough.

As the government's security Cabinet met in emergency session in a secure bunker in Tel Aviv it was clearly a case of, damned if they do and damned if they don't. All week the audacity of the Hamas attacks had increased - missiles landed in targets as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - and there was growing pressure on prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to invade the offending piece of territory. Despite the international condemnation of an estimated 300 Palestinian casualties in 10 days of fighting, ground forces of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) rolled into northern Gaza on Thursday.

"We decided to launch the action after we tried all the other ways, and with an understanding that without this operation the price we will have to pay later would be much higher," said Netanyahu. "The supreme consideration guiding us is to restore security to the civilians and quiet to the state. There is not a more moral army than the IDF ... We are operating only against terror targets."

As yet, no decision has been taken about how long the operation will last and what its longer-term aims may be. All that is known is that the IDF has moved military assets into northern Gaza in an attempt to take and hold ground which is suspected of being used by Hamas for mounting missile attacks into Israeli territory. That is an end in itself as the sound of air raid warnings followed by explosions has become part of the daily routine in Israel. Even so there are no guarantees that the occupation will succeed or if the casualty toll on both sides will fall in the days ahead.

The earlier mobilisation of 20,000 reservists had given notice that Netanyahu was prepared to repeat the operation of 2009, when the IDF invaded the world's most densely populated area to attack alleged Hamas targets. It was a mixed success: the world was shocked by the level of the violence which saw an estimated 14,000 Palestinians being killed but there was no let-up in the firing of missiles. The fighting came to an end after both sides announced unilateral ceasefires but violence has simmered along the border ever since.

During previous confrontations ceasefires were brokered by Egyptian diplomats but that is no longer an option. Not only has there been a change of regime in Egypt, where the current leader Field Marshal Sisi can hardly claim to be neutral having been responsible for outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, but Netanyahu has also lost patience with Hamas, believing that any negotiation will give them credibility.

And that helps to explain the complexity of the current situation. Many of the launch sites are situated near schools or mosques and retaliatory attacks from the air bring the risk of civilian casualties. At the same time, Netanyahu remains under pressure to end the violence, if necessary by using more force.

In a statement at the height of the violence he made it clear he was not going to duck that responsibility, saying: "We will undermine the position of Hamas in West Bank and stop the rockets from the Gaza Strip, and for that we are ready to expand the operation if necessary."

That remains Netanyahu's default position and the IDF will only stop once Hamas has agreed to a ceasefire but the policy carries risks. The Israeli leader has built his political reputation on maintaining a hawkish stance and he is expected to take a tough line but, as several Israeli observers have noted, he is also the only politician capable of quelling the violence. Several circumstances help Netanyahu in this respect.

In Israel he is politically secure, having begun a third term as prime minister in charge of a centre-right coalition. On the international front his hands-off relationship with President Barack Obama means that he can act without fear of US involvement in Israeli affairs, as he showed when he gave short shrift to a White House offer to "facilitate a cessation of hostilities." Netanyahu is also operating at time when the world's attention is largely taken up with other crises in Iraq and Syria.

In such an uncertain world the question of Israel and Palestine have slipped down the diplomatic agenda and many see the "peace process" and "two-state solution" as moribund issues which have had their day.

Against that background the trick is going to be to restore order in Israel by stopping the current fighting in Gaza and halting the cross-border missile strikes. Only later can the wider issues be addressed: the need to re-open links with Hamas; to look again at the settlement programme in the Palestinian territories; and to bring back free movement between places like Jerusalem, Nazareth and Hebron.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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