Via Middle East Monitor -MEMO
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short his trip to the US, after Israel called up reservists in preparation for a new attack on the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu had been due to spend two days in the US, today visiting US President Donald Trump at the White House and tomorrow addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC. He announced this morning however that he would now only briefly visit President Trump, before returning to Israel “to manage our operations up close”. Before leaving, Netanyahu – who is also Israel’s defence minister – reportedly held a remote meeting with the Israeli army’s chief of staff, the chief of Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet, and the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Haaretz reported.
This comes after Israel today deployed two army brigades to the Gaza fence and called up reservists for aerial units in preparation for a potential assault on the besieged Strip. Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, Aviv Kohavi, ordered two brigades be sent to Israel’s Gaza Division which, according to the Times of Israel, “represent[s] over 1,000 additional soldiers deployed to the area, a significant troop increase”. Israel has also locked down the Gaza Strip, closing the Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu Salem) and Erez (Beit Hanoun) crossings which allow goods and medical supplies into the enclave. Israel has also reduced the fishing zone it imposes off Gaza’s coast, further blockading the territory. At the time of writing, Israel had just begun its attack on the Strip, with Palestinians living there bracing for further attacks overnight. The Israeli army has claimed these measures are a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. The alleged rocket hit a house north of Tel Aviv, leaving seven wounded. Israeli army spokesperson, Ronen Manelis, claimed the rocket was fired by Hamas – which governs the Gaza Strip – a claim that Hamas denies. A Hamas official told Agence France Press (AFP): “No one from the resistance movements, including Hamas, has an interest in firing rockets from the Gaza Strip towards [Israel].” That this has occurred just two weeks before Israel’s upcoming general election on 9 April is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, Netanyahu’s visit to the US was widely expected to act as a pre-election PR exercise, demonstrating the strong relations between him and the Trump administration. Netanyahu has been keen to stress this relationship throughout his campaign, using billboards of the pair shaking hands and pointing to President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in May as evidence that Netanyahu has “got things done”.
This tactic appeared to be holding true once again last week, as President Trump tweeted that “it is time for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights”. The decision – which reversed decades of US foreign policy under which the Golan Heights was declared “Israeli occupied” in line with international law – was seen as an election gift for Netanyahu, and a potentially much-needed boost to his struggling poll numbers. President Trump was slated to sign a decree recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights while Netanyahu was in the US, though it is now unclear when this will go ahead.