Palestinians fear Netanyahu may escape internal crisis by launching war on Gaza

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  March 17, 2023

The Netanyahu government has so far externalized its ongoing crisis through its military campaign on the West Bank, but Palestinians in Gaza fear that it might ultimately resort to war to cripple the Israeli protest movement.

Palestinians in Gaza are closely following the ongoing Israeli protests against the current Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial overhaul. Many in Gaza believe that if Netanyahu’s crisis continues to escalate, he will do what Israeli governments have always done to escape an internal crisis: launch a war against “the enemy.” The most convenient target has usually been Gaza. 

Like it has many times before, Israel may very well use Gaza to force Israeli protestors off the streets. These predictions have been compounded by the fact that Hamas has publicly stated that it is anticipating a war during the holy month of Ramadan less than a week away. 

Analysts have commented that if Palestinian factions in Gaza were to respond to an Israeli provocation in the next month, it would offer the Netanyahu government the pretext it needs to throw a wrench in the burgeoning Israeli protest movement. It might even allow Netanyahu to cause enough disorientation in the movement to allow him to implement his legislative overhaul.

This Israeli policy of externalizing its crises has often proven effective, allowing it to escape the internal scrutiny being heaped on one government or the other while granting it the opportunity to further tighten the screws on the resistance factions in the Gaza Strip.

This is precisely what Netanyahu did with the 2021 war on Gaza. At the time, corruption charges and declining popularity were paving the way for Netanyahu to be ousted by the opposition led by Yair Lapid, and many analysts at the time noted Netanyahu’s utilization of the 2021 war to garner public support for himself.

But this time, things are different. In previous years, Israel has counted on being able to pummel a largely defenseless and atomized Gaza. In other words, the policy has relied on the geographic separation and fragmentation of Palestinians. 

What Israel does not want is to become embroiled in a confrontation with Palestinians on multiple fronts — Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and even Palestinian communities within the Israeli state who enjoy nominal citizenship. 

Naturally, Israel has always preferred to divide and conquer. 

“Netanyahu right now is trying to escape his crisis through the West Bank escalation,” Mkhaimer Abusada, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Mondoweiss. “He knows that the cost of the West Bank escalation remains low, much less than the cost of a war with Gaza.”

Israel’s crisis

Israel as a state is based on two pillars, legitimacy and security, says Palestinian analyst Hussam Dajani. The legitimacy of the current government was first called into question in the wake of the judicial overhaul that led to the Israeli protest movement. Those protests then served to undermine Israel’s security.

“As the protests continue to mount, the future of the Israeli government is being called into question,” Dajani told Mondoweiss. “It is now in danger of collapsing.”

This opinion has been echoed by Israeli analysts, who fear that the protests might devolve into a civil war in Israel.

Netanyahu’s plan aims to strip the power of the Israeli judicial system, the same system liberal Israelis take pride in and claim as evidence of living under “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Protesters consider the intervention of the government’s executive authority in the judicial system to be a violation of that so-called democracy. This has led Israeli analysts to opine that the collapse of “Israeli democracy” will be a prelude to the collapse of Israel itself. Even former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, says Dajani, has said in previous statements that Netanyahu is leading Israel to its own destruction.

This can already be gleaned from the internal drift of the Israeli government to fascism, reflected in its behavior on the ground. “The unprecedented terror and fascism practiced by the Israeli government negatively impacts it and its standing in the eyes of the international community,” Dajani explains.

Dajani also mentions that this is hardly an uncommon view among the Israeli liberal establishment, referencing the statement of former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in which he voiced his fears of the collapse of Israel before its eightieth anniversary.

The so-called “curse of the eighth decade” has gained particular traction among Arab analysts, and Dajani is no exception. But it is also worth noting as it makes clear the existential threat that many Israeli, including those in the ruling elite, view the current moment.

The price of war with Gaza

While professor Abusada believes that the Israeli security and military apparatus would prefer to keep Gaza isolated from the current situation in the West Bank, he also believes that the recent wave of Israeli assassinations of resistance fighters and extrajudicial killings in the West Bank may find Gaza facing an escalation as well. 

“The Israeli invasions and the killing of fighters in the West Bank may negatively impact Gaza,” Abusada said. 

This is in spite of the fact that neither Hamas nor Israel likely wants a full war at this point. But unfolding events might not leave them any choice.

Abusada notes that the upcoming months include Jewish holidays and the settler “flag march” in their calendar. Added to that, the month of Ramadan has, in previous years, coincided with periods of popular upheaval and mass protest in Jerusalem and the West Bank. All of this indicates the likelihood of a Gaza escalation.

Abusada qualifies his prediction by pointing out that Israel would prefer to keep the battle isolated in the West Bank. “Netanyahu recently attempted to escape his domestic crisis through the escalation in Nablus and Jenin. He knows that tensions in the West Bank ultimately cost him less than a Gaza war,” he said. 

“The West Bank reaction to the Israeli invasions in Nablus and Jenin will be small and modest,” he continues. “A Palestinian will carry out a shooting operation. Someone might open fire at a group of settlers. But when it comes to an escalation with Gaza, over 5 million Israelis will be in range of the rockets of the Gaza resistance factions.”

But perhaps it is exactly this supposed threat that Israel needs to conjure up — to get Israelis off the streets.

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union