Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered the IDF Friday to “respond with force” to rocket fire against Israel originating from the Gaza Strip, after Palestinian terror groups in Gaza broke the ceasefire at 8 a.m. and began firing dozens of rockets at southern Israel.
Hamas officials refused to extend the three-day cease-fire, but said they were willing to continue negotiations in Cairo. Israel said it would not negotiate under fire and would protect its citizens by all means. The Israeli delegation left Cairo on Friday morning, and it was not clear if it would return. Egyptian officials were continuing talks with the Palestinian delegation, which was reportedly divided, with PA representatives having urged an extension of the ceasefire, overruled by Hamas representatives.
Within minutes after the temporary truce expired at 8 a.m., Gaza militants began firing rockets. By afternoon, some 40 rockets had been fired. Some 30 landed in Israel, several were intercepted and at least four fell short in Gaza, the army said. Four Israelis were hurt, one seriously. One rocket landed meters from a gasoline station. Later, a rocket directly hit a home in Sderot.
Both Israel and Hamas are under international pressure to reach a deal. As part of such an arrangement, Israel wants to see Hamas disarmed or prevented from re-arming, while Hamas demands Gaza’s borders be opened. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza to prevent Hamas importing more weaponry.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) said she presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday with a diplomatic proposal to end the fighting in Gaza while restarting peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Livni told Channel 2 she was set to submit the proposal to the security cabinet for approval.
“The steps we are seeking don’t need Hamas’s approval. If Hamas had wanted to have the blockade lifted since 2007 [when it seized power from the PA], it had a choice. It would have stopped the violence, recognized the known agreements [signed between Israel and the Palestinians, including renouncing terrorism] and recognized Israel as a Jewish state. It would have then become [a] legitimate [power].”
It may be that the next few days see Hamas contenting itself with “symbolic” strikes, largely on the south, to show the Gaza public that it has not been broken. At the same time, it has declared its desire to continue the ceasefire talks in Gaza. It’s first goal for now: To defy Egypt’s framework, which conditions talks on a cessation of hostilities. Israel’s formal response: It won’t talk while the rockets are flying
Hamas’s second goal is to get a seaport opened in Gaza. The spokesmen of its military wing are insisting there’ll be no long-standing ceasefire without it. Why the insistence on a seaport? As a symbol that the blockade has been broken. Even if such a port were overseen by international officials or the Palestinian Authority, Hamas would portray it as a breakthrough, a real achievement that justified the past month’s death and devastation. And also as a link to the outside world that does not pass through Egypt. Even if Hamas were to negotiate a ceasefire deal that saw the reopening of the Rafah border crossing, it would still be dependent on the Egyptians there; not so with a port (although Israel, of course, could always control access from the sea).
If, when, whenever, a more lasting ceasefire agreement can be forged, however, it seems unlikely that much of real substance will change. Both Netanyahu and Hamas may want a period of real quiet, but nothing more than that. Neither wants a serious peace agreement that would require substantive concessions. Neither, least of all Netanyahu, wants a deterioration into full-scale war.
From the moment he returned to office in 2009, Netanyahu has led Israel based on one clear strategy: quiet. Not peace, heaven forbid. And not war. Just general, unassuming calm, that would allow his government to survive and wouldn’t require him to take difficult political or diplomatic decisions.
The policies that Netanyahu and his associates have followed assume that while there is no solution to the Palestinian issue, it can be managed. The commander’s intent, as signaled by the Prime Minister’s Office, also influenced the defense establishment, which sought to maintain quiet with the Palestinians in the West Bank by almost every possible means: occasional concessions, maintenance of security cooperation with the PA, and the minimizing of friction with the local Palestinian population.
As regards Gaza, on the other hand, although there was a dangerous enemy in charge there openly calling for Israel’s destruction, a strange, secretive romance developed. Apparently it was comfortable for Jerusalem to deal with this enemy, Hamas, which didn’t hide its desire to wipe Israel off the map, and thus saved Netanyahu from the need to make difficult decisions about territorial compromises. Hamas had made clear since 2012 that it wasn’t interested in an escalation against Israel. Indeed Hamas, after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in November that year, worked seriously to maintain the quiet. It stopped activists from other organizations who tried to fire rockets at Israel, and prevented an escalation in any way possible.
Until that dramatic incident, Israel had refused to internalize what its Gaza “mistress” was doing behind its back. True, we knew about the tunnels, the procurement of medium- and long-range rockets, and the plans for a variety of attacks. But the strategy of “quiet above all” led to tactics that involved ignoring all this in order to avoid escalation. Even in the IDF there was a tendency to regard Hamas as a relatively moderate party that prevented Gaza from falling into the hands of more radical Jihadists.
It is hard to say if Hamas had a master plan with a clear beginning and end. It could be that the organization wanted a limited escalation, but it’s not likely that it understood it would plunge itself into a month of heavy fighting against Israel, which would leave it battered and bruised, with basically no accomplishments on the ground, and much of Gaza in ruins.
Where does this now leave Israel? The conflict may not, at this point, have left the kind of deep scars on the country that the Second Lebanon War did in 2006. The IDF’s performance has been reasonable, sometimes even good. The army met the goals it set for itself. The home front didn’t show signs of breaking either.
Still, it seems like we are back where we were before the start of Operation Protective Edge, albeit with 30-plus Hamas tunnels smashed, at the terrible price of 64 IDF soldiers. Hamas is still standing in Gaza, without a desire for an escalation in the near future, but with military capabilities that will only improve with time, able to choose when next to attack.
It seems that the only way to change something in this equation (apart from conquering the Strip) would be for Israel to initiate a political process with the Palestinian Authority. There is not much that Israel can do with Hamas, except undermining it in the diplomatic sphere, by offering it everything — a seaport, an airport, a lifting of the blockade, a weekly pass to the amusement park in Tel Aviv… in exchange for the disarmament of Gaza and the destruction of the rest of the tunnels. In other words, to let Hamas’s leaders choose between the Gaza Underground they’ve built and the Gaza on the surface. Hamas would say no, and Israel would gain a few points.
But if it really wants to harm Hamas, to weaken it internally and in public opinion, the government of Israel would have to renew the peace talks, even at the expense of a settlement freeze. PA President Mahmoud Abbas proved a partner in fighting terror and stabilizing the region in recent months. Even the technocrat government he established, based on Hamas support, suddenly looks to Israel’s decision-makers like an entity it can work with (as opposed to being branded a terror government right after it was established).
But to be more realistic for a moment, the Netanyahu strategy of seeking quiet isn’t likely to change soon. Netanyahu doesn’t really want to drastically weaken Hamas, and he certainly doesn’t want to return to negotiations that would require him to make territorial concessions.