The quiet that has prevailed on the southern front is not coincidental. It is a result of a rare congruence of interests among Israel, Hamas, and Egypt in the wake of operation “Warm Winter.” These three parties have a clear interest in reaching some kind of agreement that would prevent the fighting from going on. The lull – which has not been officially declared but is nonetheless being maintaining knowingly and deliberately by Israel and Hamas – aims to allow for negotiations on such agreement with Egyptian mediation and active American support.
These negotiations are being held at this time in el-Arish and in Cairo, as Egyptian representatives are simultaneously meeting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as well as with Amos Gilad, who represents Israel’s defense minister. All parties make sure to maintain secrecy and a low profile on the media front in order to prevent opposition elements, rival factions, and talkative politicians to torpedo the move.
And still, it is worthwhile to look into what suddenly led Hamas to blink, the Israeli government – which promised sustained military pressure – to fold, Egypt to enlist, and the US to support. And how long will this lull last? Most importantly, what is the deal that these parties are aiming to finalize?
As to Hamas, the main motive is the fear of a major Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which was badly beaten in operation “Warm Winter” – it sustained a much harder blow than what emerged from media reports – now fears such large-scale operation more than it did in the past. Information from the Strip indicates that Hamas estimates that if it continues to fight, Israel will realize its threat in the near future – this would topple Hamas’ Gaza regime and prevent the group from realizing its strategic objective: Taking over the West Bank as well and ruling the Palestinian people. Therefore, Hamas is almost desperately interested in a temporary ceasefire, a “hudna,” and wants the Egyptians to save it from the threat.
For that reason, Hamas ended its military activity, immediately after it seemingly proved that it didn’t surrender and even defeated Israel. The group is basing its victory claims on several facts on the ground: The ongoing rocket fire in the wake of the IDF operation last week; the lethal explosive device on the Gaza border fence; and the massacre in the Jerusalem yeshiva. Through these “achievements,” group leaders believe that they can present Egypt with demands from a position of power, without losing their stature on the Palestinian street.
As to Israel, although the objectives of operation “Warm Winter” were fully realized, the Jewish State also wishes to avoid escalation at this time. The last operation clearly proved that in order to paralyze the Qassam fire the army needs to be present in launching areas. The moment the IDF leaves, rocket fire is renewed from the evacuated territory. We also learned that rocket attacks will also continue from areas where the IDF has no presence. That is, there is no way to really stop the fire with the exception of a complete Gaza Strip takeover, or alternately, a direct or indirect agreement with Hamas.
Another lesson drawn by the IDF is that a massive incursion into the Strip will lead to major unrest on the Palestinian street and in the Arab world – al-Jazeera and other television stations will make sure that happens. Such unrest could ignite another Intifada in the territories and in Israel, and possibly prompt Hizbullah to join the fighting by launching rockets at northern communities.
These lessons, which were thoroughly examined in recent days by the political and military leadership (Olmert, Barak, Livni, and Ashkenazi) lowered even further the appetite of policy makers for a large-scale operation in the Strip; an operation that cannot be avoided should the fighting continue. Indeed, “Warm Winter” showed the IDF that a Gaza incursion will not involve as many casualties as feared, yet experience proves that taking over territory is the relatively easy and simple part – a lengthy stay is a whole different story, as was proven by the bitter American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Multinational force not on horizon
The IDF argues that because of the nature of the urban and crowded Gaza region, it would be impossible to take advantage of the initial success in order to go in and out, detain wanted suspects, gather intelligence, and regularly thwart terror attacks as was the case in the West Bank in operation “Defensive Shield” and the operations that followed it. In the Strip it would be necessary to stay in the area for long months in order to completely curb the terror originating there as well as arms smuggling. An ongoing presence in Gaza would enable terror groups to prepare and carry out attacks, necessitate large forces (including reserves) to stay in the Strip, and require Israel to set up a military administration that would assume responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinian population. All this will be done with no certainty that the rocket fire will not renew after the IDF leaves the Strip.
At this time, the international community is not enthusiastic about the idea of dispatching a multinational force to the Strip that would replace the IDF and fight the rocket launching cells should they resume their fire. As a result of these considerations, Jerusalem has recently lowered its demands and is now willing to make do with a temporary truce that would guarantee quiet in Gaza-region communities, under two conditions: That the economic siege imposed on the Strip would continue, even if it would be softened, so that Hamas won’t be able to boost its political status and erode the status of Mahmoud Abbas; and most importantly – so that Hamas won’t be able to build and boost its military force.
And this is where Egypt comes into the picture. Israeli officials claim that Cairo’s attitude to the Hamas threat underwent a complete change in the wake of the Philadelphi Route breach. Egypt discovered that a Hamastan in distress that cries out for help in Gaza constitutes a real threat to the stability of the Egyptian regime. As a result, Egypt is interested precisely in what Israel is interested in – an end to the fighting and prevention of further boost in Hamas’ strength. In recent weeks, Egypt already proved that it is able to efficiently foil terror attacks on Israel originating in the Sinai. Now, the Egyptians pledge – as a result of massive American pressure among other things – to do everything necessary in order to prevent arms, explosives, and trained Hamas fighters from being smuggled into the Strip. Israel is interested in giving Cairo an opportunity to show what it can do on this front. “They are capable of delivering on the pledge, if only they want to,” said a senior political-security official with a great degree of conviction.
The problem is that Hamas also has demands that it presented to Egypt as condition for agreeing to a lull. These conditions completely contradict what Israel wants: Hamas demands de facto control over the Rafah crossing, the complete lifting of the economic siege, and an Israeli obligation to refrain from anti-terror operations in the Strip. Israel cannot agree to this as it knows full well that these demands would prevent the Egyptians from putting an end to the strengthening of Hamas and enable the group to reinforce its Gaza Strip regime.
For the time being, the positions presented by the parties to this round of indirect negotiations have not been softened. However, both Israel and Hamas are doing everything so that they will not be blamed should the contacts fail. Israel is doing that in the hopes that the Egyptians will deliver on their pledge to curb the smuggling even without a truce; Hamas is doing that because it is dependent on Egypt and fears that Israel will occupy the Strip. Israeli officials estimate that one or two more rounds of escalation may be needed in order to prompt Hamas to soften its demands. For that reason, the lull may end at any moment, as a result of an Israeli counter-terror operation or a Hamas terror attack.
Simultaneously, Israel continues to prepare for a large-scale operation in the Strip. The estimate is that we must be ready for such operation within a short period of time, either because Egyptian mediation fails and no lull is achieved or because a lethal rocket or terror attack won’t leave Israel any choice except for ordering the IDF into Gaza.
The army is ready, in military-operational terms, to enter the Strip or large parts of it. However, there are still some loose ends regarding the manner in which the IDF will stay in Gaza and handle the civilian population. Further preparation work is also needed on the diplomatic front, in order to prepare the ground and create international legitimacy for a major operation.