Will Israel's policy on Gaza change under Bennett?

An Israeli flag flutters as Israeli soldiers stand on a tank in an army camp near Kibutz Kisufim along the border with the Gaza Strip in 2009. [Getty]
9 min read
09 September, 2021
Analysis: While Israel's new government was billed as an anti-Netanyahu alliance, Bennett is set to maintain the status quo in Gaza.

As an opposition leader, Naftali Bennett habitually attacked Netanyahu's policies and especially his approach toward the Palestinians and Gaza. Now in the prime minister's seat, Bennett appears to endorse the policies he once criticised.

When it comes to Gaza, there are signs that political realism may be forcing the new PM to adopt similar policies to his predecessor. This is partly due to international pressure coupled with the need to avoid another domestic political impasse.

There are, however, two more factors that shape Netanyahu and Bennett's Gaza policies: personal worldviews and the decades-long legacy of Israel and Gaza. Both factors intersect and feed into each other. 

In Netanyahu's footsteps   

As the situation in Gaza escalated in May this year, Naftali Bennett, then-leader of the Yamina right-wing party, reportedly vowed to support the Netanyahu government's forceful response. He called upon the government "not to end the current round [of fighting] in Gaza before Hamas pays a heavy price."

Following the 11-day onslaught, Israeli media reported that Bennett attacked Netanyahu over a presumably inadequate performance in Gaza, describing his tactics as a "smokescreen for his personality cult".

"Now in the prime minister's seat, Bennett appears to endorse the policies he once criticised"

Today, as Israel's elected PM, Bennett's attitude toward Gaza seems to follow the former government's policies of "calm for calm" and "prompt retaliation."

On 15 June, only three days after the new government was formed, Bennett ordered airstrikes in the Gaza Strip after incendiary balloons were launched across the border. This was the first attack since the Egypt-mediated ceasefire nearly four weeks earlier.

The balloons were a response to Bennett's government allowing Jewish settlers to march to the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem in celebration of Israel's occupation of the city in 1967.

Since then, Bennett has ordered a series of airstrikes in Gaza, either in response to more incendiary balloons or to retaliate against the injury - and later death - of an Israeli sniper in last month's Gaza border clashes with Palestinian protestors. 

Will Israel's policy on Gaza change under Bennett?
Israel has launched four deadly military operations in Gaza since 2008. [Getty]

"Israel will settle the score with those who harm our soldiers and civilians," he warned.

But the scope of his Gaza actions so far is not aligned with his pre-premiership promises.  

On one hand, calculated responses serve to keep his coalition together. Any strong actions against Palestinians may lead Mansour Abbas' Ra'am, the only Arab party in the coalition, to leave the government.

Bennett is also invested in establishing smooth relations with the Biden administration. 

"If Bennett and Biden agree on one thing, it is their distaste for Netanyahu"

Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz speculates that during his first visit as PM to Washington, the Biden administration may have advised Bennett to keep the calm.

If Bennett evicted Palestinian families in Jerusalem or escalated the conflict in Gaza it would become difficult for the US to continue downplaying the Palestinian issue.

Biden does not want to pressure Bennett into doing anything that may jeopardise his fragile coalition. If Bennett and Biden agree on one thing, it is their distaste for Netanyahu.

Therefore, Bennett is required to manage the status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories in such a way that the situation does not spiral out of control. For Gaza, in particular, it means that another large-scale confrontation with Hamas may be off the table, for now.

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Instead, Bennett's course of action is likely to be containing the situation to its current seemingly manageable state of affairs. 

This is exactly the course of action that Netanyahu adopted, and over which he was repeatedly criticised by Bennett when he was in the opposition. However, once in power, Bennett does not seem to have many options but to walk in Netanyahu's shoes.

Two shades of the same ideology 

Despite their disagreements, Netanyahu and Bennett espouse shades of the same ideology when it comes to Palestine, and Gaza in particular.

Netanyahu is a hardline ideologue, influenced by Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionism, an ideology centred on Jewish territorial maximalism in Palestine.

"Like his predecessor, Bennett sees a Palestinian state as dangerous to Israel's future"

He has long opposed the Oslo process and, as PM, slowed its progress and minimised its effect. He strongly opposed former prime minister Ariel Sharon's plan to leave Gaza, leading to his resignation as then-Minister of Finance.

Bennett, a religious ultra-nationalist Zionist, shares Netanyahu's territorial maximalism and advocates the annexation of 60% of the West Bank. Like his predecessor, Bennett sees a Palestinian state as dangerous to Israel's future. 

"I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state," he said.  

He also opposed the Gaza disengagement, describing it as "a trauma that will remain etched in the heart of everyone from the religious-Zionist camp."

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To both leaders, one route to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state is to hinder any geographical congruity between Gaza and the West Bank. Perpetuating the no-peace/no-conflict status quo in Gaza serves exactly that purpose. 

That said, personal ideologies do not function in a vacuum. The Israeli state has long treated Gaza as a shapeshifting security dilemma with its own unique behaviour. That created an institutional and procedural legacy on which the consecutive Israeli governments have relied in formulating their Gaza policies.  

Israel's legacy in Gaza

Gaza was an integral part of pre-1948 Palestine. During the 1948 War, the Egyptian army succeeded in keeping hold of what later became the Gaza Strip, the southernmost section of the coastal plain of Palestine that extends for roughly 25 miles.

As the Zionist militias attacked Palestine's southern villages and towns, waves of Palestinians took refuge in Gaza, trebling its population.

"The logic goes as follows: enclosing Palestinians in their areas would be as beneficial to Israel as expelling them, minus the international outcry"

To prevent their return, Israel, in 1954, enacted the Prevention of Infiltration Law which incriminated and led to the death of many Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes in what became Israel. Furthermore, Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt took repressive measures against Gazans to prevent these "infiltrations", allegedly to avoid Israel's retaliation.

By blocking demographic congruity - partly benefiting from Gaza's geographical limitations - the law was the first seed in turning Gaza into an isolated enclave.

The isolation deepened in 1956 when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip (and the Sinai) - as part of a joint French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt following Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Anchored in the belief that Gaza was an integral part of eretz yisrael (the Land of Israel), Israel initially had no intention of leaving, but eventually succumbed to international pressures and pulled out, five months later.

The (re)occupation of the Gaza Strip - along with the West Bank, Sinai, and the Golan Heights - in 1967 came as an additional step in what many Gazans viewed as further isolation, which, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, functioned as an incremental and quiet ethnic cleansing.

Naftali Bennett -- AFP
Israel's new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a hardline religious nationalist. [Getty]

The logic goes as follows: enclosing Palestinians in their areas would be as beneficial to Israel as expelling them, minus the international outcry.

A significant turning point for Gazans was Israel's disengagement in August 2005. Although the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories is a state of imprisonment - Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip has turned it into something resembling a maximum-security prison.  

As much as the imprisonment of Gaza served Israel's overall plan to fragment Palestinians demographically and geographically, it resulted in the emergence of an ever-evolving security dilemma for the Israeli state.

Security dilemma in Gaza

Starting in 2005, and especially after Hamas' 2007 takeover, Israel has dealt with Gaza as a semi-state with its own needs and challenges, separate from the West Bank and the Fatah-led PA.

In dealing with Gaza, the Israeli state has, in the past decade, embraced three strategies, according to a 2020 report by Israel's Institute of National Security Studies.

These include: 1) overthrowing Hamas, 2) weakening and deterring the movement, and 3) accepting Hamas' rule and dealing with Gaza only through humanitarian means even if that allows Hamas' power to grow. 

"Oscillating between calm and violence in the past decade, Gaza bears witness to the failure of Israel's attempts to bypass the political situation with economic incentives"

The four Israeli military operations in Gaza between 2009 - 2021 proved that overthrowing Hamas is not a viable option.

Removing the movement from power would require a full-blown ground invasion. However, experience has shown, especially after 2014 Operation Protective Edge, that a ground operation inside the heavily populated and extensively tunnelled Gaza would be a huge gamble; the Israeli military would suffer heavy casualties and the civilian death toll among Gazans would be very high.   

Even with the slim possibility of Israel emerging victorious at the end of the battle, there are no guarantees that the other paramilitary groups in Gaza, whom Hamas currently keeps under control, would not become even more challenging security problems for Israel. 

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With the option of removing Hamas shelved, for the time being at least, Israel has been oscillating tactically and reactively between trying to weaken and deter Hamas and limiting Israeli involvement in Gaza to allowing humanitarian aid.

The two options are based on a dated Israeli doctrine of adjustment and deterrence, where Hamas is deterred and, therefore, forced to accept a long-term calm.

But there is also a tentative stick-and-carrot side to this arrangement.

In return for calm, Israel would "alleviate" the siege and allow more supplies into Gaza. This also includes Israel's approval of monthly cash transfers, funded by Qatar, to support the payment of salaries to Hamas's "civil servants" and 100,000 needy families.  

Economic sedatives

As it stands, economic incentives are all that Israel is willing to offer at the moment.  "Economic peace"  has long been Netanyahu's alternative to a political process and currently represents Bennett's core policy.

To the latter, the idea is to promote the development of 40% of the West Bank that is under full or partial PA control (areas A and B) as a means for peaceful interaction in the absence of a peace process, which he and Netanyahu oppose and believe is infeasible.

Economic improvements in Gaza can only resolve the secondary issues and provide partial monetary relief, but will not weaken Hamas or lead to its ouster.

"Israel has dealt with Gaza as a semi-state with its own needs and challenges, separate from the West Bank and the Fatah-led PA"

Oscillating between calm and violence in the past decade, Gaza bears witness to the failure of Israel's attempts to bypass the political situation with even more tentative and conditional economic incentives.

This is a less costly, less challenging alternative to a political roadmap, and, more importantly, does not require an ideological shift.

Unless the Bennett government sees differently, the alternative will continue to be Palestinian deprivation and an Israeli security dilemma.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa