8/22/2016 Rocket Fire on Sederot

Two months ago MK Avigdor Lieberman replaced MK Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon as Israel’s Defense Minister. Lieberman’s appointment was met with surprise, as he has no experience in the area of defense and has been a constant critic of Prime Minister Netanyahu from the right flank of the political spectrum. Lieberman has repeatedly suggested that Israel reconquer the Gaza strip and not allow Hamas to remain in power. In his first days as Defense Minister, Lieberman did his best to project the image of a responsible official; even conducting a successful visit to the United States. However, the last few weeks have not remained as smooth as the start of his term.

Last night, for the first time under Lieberman’s watch, the IDF had to decide how to respond to a rocket attack from Gaza – after an ISIS cell fired a Grad rocket at Israeli border town of S’derot, This time the rocket landed in Sderot. Luckily, it fell harmlessly in a garden, killing or wounding no one and causing negligible property damage.

In the past, Israel would have responded to this sort of attack with a symbolic bombing of some empty Hamas installation in Gaza. The rationale had been that as long as Hamas itself had not carried out an attack, the response should be limited, i.e. just enough to make it clear Israel considered Hamas responsible for anything that happens inside Gaza.

Last night was different. Israel responded with 11 airstrikes and firing 37 tanks and artillery rounds at Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets; delivering the strongest response since the 2014 summer war. Though the targets were all uninhabited, the explosions were so loud that many of the people attending a music festival in S’derot (the same border town hit by rocket fire earlier) chose to leave the concert early, for fear the situation might escalate. This morning the IDF was criticized for attacking Gaza during the festival performance.

Last night, as Tel Avivans went to sleep the question on everyone’s mind was: Will Hamas respond or not? So far everything has been quiet and most analysts believe Hamas has no interest is an escalation. Of course, they could be wrong.

Was yesterday’s larger response a function of Lieberman becoming Defense Minister? Some sources claim the vigorous response was merely the implementation of a new policy, put into place long before Lieberman took office; others disagree and think the intensity of the response was a clear reflection of Lieberman’s world view.

After an uneventful introduction as Defense Minister, Lieberman has recently been making some waves. Two weeks ago Lieberman responded to a statement made by President Obama, indicating that many in the Israeli defense establishment were happy with America’s agreement with Iran, by issuing a statement comparing the US–Iran agreement to the Munich Agreements of 1938 (a remark for which Lieberman was forced to apologize.) Then, last week Lieberman ordered a division of the army to stop sending volunteers to play with children of illegal immigrants living in South Tel Aviv, after neighborhood residents complained.

Lieberman, who runs his party as a personal dictatorship, is popular among his supporters, especially among the Russian immigrants who have been the backbone of his patrons. Many of these same party Lieberman loyalists believe that Israel needs a strong leader, AKA Putin, whose strength is admired. Putin is popular both among Russian immigrants here, as well as back home in the former Soviet Union. By all objective analysis, Putin has been a successful Russian leader; credited with strengthening Russian influence in the Middle East and conquering the Crimea as the world has stood by. Some Israelis say, with near admiration – How does Putin get away with it? After all, his Air Force has been killing dozens, if not hundreds of innocent civilians in Syria almost every day, and yet not one person has taken to the streets of Europe to protest. There is no BDS movement against Russia; no talk of condemnation – yes there are some modest economic sanctions in place (condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea), but its behavior – and that of Iran – which have led to the deaths of thousands, seem of little concern to the rest of the world.

Some Israelis say that we need an Israeli Putin; someone who cares little of what the world thinks and will only act on what he believes to be in our interest. In Tel Aviv, people with that world view are a small minority. Tel Aviv, the cosmopolitain city, whose numerous start-ups sell worldwide, is concerned about the reactions of the world.

However, once you leave Tel Aviv, public opinion in Israel begins to change. You hear more and more voices supporting the Lieberman view that our enemies only understand displays of strength.

Everyone agrees that we live in a very dangerous neighborhood. How Israel balances between its liberal democratic tendencies and its need to be strong in region that seems to be falling apart, will be the story of the coming months and years.