Israel-Palestine conflict: Why Benjamin Netanyahu is yet to launch a new war on the Gaza Strip

Although Netanyahu could launch a war as a last resort, he has no need for such a risky option at the moment (File/AFP)

Though Israel’s past wars on Gaza have often been justified by Tel Aviv as a response to Palestinian rockets or, generally, as acts of self-defense, the truth is different. Historically, Israel’s relationship with Gaza has been defined by its need to create distractions from its own fractious politics, to flex its muscles against its regional enemies and to test its new weapons technology.

Though the occupied West Bank and other Arab countries have been used as a testing ground for Israel’s war machine, no other place has allowed Israel to sustain its weapon experimentation for as long as Gaza, making Tel Aviv the world’s 10th-largest weapons exporter.

There is a reason why Gaza is ideal for such grand, albeit tragic, experiments.

The Strip is home to 2 million Palestinians who live squalid lives with virtually no clean water and little food, all of them confined within 365 sq. km. In fact, due to Israel’s so-called safety belts, much of Gaza’s arable land that borders Israel is off limits. Farmers are often shot at by Israeli troops, almost at the same frequency as Gaza’s fishermen are targeted should they dare venture beyond the 3 nautical miles allocated to them by the Israeli Navy.

“The Lab,” an award-winning Israeli documentary released in 2013, discussed in painful detail how Israel has turned the homelands of millions of Palestinians into human laboratories for testing new weapons. Gaza, even before but especially since then, has been the main testing ground for these weapons.

Gaza has also been a laboratory for Israeli political experiments. When, from December 2008 to January 2009, Israel’s then-Acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni decided to — in her own words — “go wild” by unleashing one of the deadliest wars on Gaza, the Israeli politician was hoping that her military adventure would help solidify support for her party in the Knesset.

No one has perfected the use of violence to score political points like Israel’s current prime minister

Ramzy Baroud

At the time, Livni was the head of Kadima, which was established in 2005 by former leader of the Likud, Ariel Sharon. As Sharon’s successor, Livni wanted to prove her worth as a strong politician capable of teaching Palestinians a lesson. Though her experiment won her some support in the February 2009 elections, it backfired badly following the November 2012 war and Kadima was nearly destroyed in the January 2013 elections. Eventually, the party vanished from Israel’s political map altogether.

This was not the first nor the last time that Israeli politicians have attempted to use Gaza as a way to distract from their own political woes or to demonstrate, through killing Palestinians, their qualifications as protectors of Israel.

However, no one has perfected the use of violence to score political points like Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Having just returned to office as the head of Israel’s most extremist government in history, Netanyahu is keen to stay in power, especially since his right-wing coalition has more comfortable support margins in the Knesset than any of Israel’s five governments of the last three years.

With a right-wing, pro-war constituency that is far more interested in illegal settlement expansion and “security” than economic growth or socioeconomic equality, Netanyahu should, at least technically, be in a stronger position to launch another war on Gaza. But why is he hesitating?

On Feb. 1, a Palestinian group fired a rocket toward southern Israel, prompting an Israeli response that was intentionally limited. According to Palestinian groups in the besieged Strip, the rocket was fired as part of the ongoing armed rebellion by West Bank Palestinians. It was meant to illustrate the political unity between Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The West Bank is living its darkest days. Thirty-five Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army in January alone, at least nine of whom perished in Jenin in a single raid. A Palestinian, acting alone, responded by killing seven Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, the perfect spark for what is usually a massive Israeli response.

But that response has been confined, thus far, to the demolition of homes, arrest of the attacker’s family members, military sieges on various Palestinian towns and hundreds of individual assaults by Jewish settlers on Palestinians. An all-out Israeli war, especially in Gaza, has not yet actualized. But why?

Firstly, the political risks of attacking Gaza and waging a long war outweigh, for now at least, the benefits. Though Netanyahu’s coalition is relatively secure, the expectations of the PM’s extremist allies are very high. A war with an indecisive outcome could be considered a victory for Palestinians, a notion that could alone break the coalition. Though Netanyahu could launch war as a last resort, he has no need to take such a risky option at the moment.

Secondly, the Palestinian resistance is stronger than ever. On Jan. 26, Hamas declared that it had used surface-to-air missiles to repel an Israeli air raid on Gaza. Though the Gaza group’s military arsenal is largely rudimentary, much of it homemade, it is far more advanced and sophisticated than the weapons used during Israel’s so-called Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

Finally, Israel’s munition reserve must be at its lowest point in a long time. Now that the US, Israel’s largest weapons supplier, has tapped into its strategic weapons reserve due to the Russia-Ukraine war, Washington will not be able to replenish the Israeli arsenal with constant supplies the same way the Obama administration did during the 2014 war. Even more alarming for the Israeli military, The New York Times revealed last month that “the Pentagon is tapping into a vast but little-known stockpile of American ammunition in Israel to help meet Ukraine’s dire need for artillery shells.”

Though Israeli wars on Gaza are much riskier nowadays compared to the past, a cornered and embattled Netanyahu can still resort to such a scenario if he feels that his leadership is in peril. Indeed, the Israeli leader did so in May 2021. Even then, he still could not save himself or his government from a humiliating defeat.

  • Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of Twitter: @RamzyBaroud

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