The contacts aimed at securing Gilad Shalit's release are in a critical stage. This is the main reason why Israel is currently avoiding a harsh response to the rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip. The efforts to formulate a deal that will see hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for the abducted IDF soldier were accelerated last week.
This week, Cairo will host a process whose results may be critical in determining whether the efforts to release Shalit will bear fruit soon: Israeli and Hamas representatives are slated to engage in indirect contacts in order to reach agreement on the list of "heavyweight" prisoners to be released (out of a list of 450 detainees submitted by Hamas) as well as the total number of prisoners to be freed in three stages, in exchange for Shalit.
Both sides will sit at the same hotel or Egyptian government facility, in separate wings, while the Egyptian mediator – General Omer Suleiman and his men – go back and forth. At the same time, internal discussions among the various Hamas branches are taking place, in addition to other elements that are exerting indirect pressure at Hamas to show greater flexibility. These include Syria's president, Qatar's leader, and the French president (as Gilad Shalit holds dual Israeli and French citizenship.)
This is the main reason why Israel's political leadership has decided to show restraint for the time being in the face of attacks from the Strip. Officials in Jerusalem wish to avoid, as much as is possible, any move that could undermine the contacts on Shalit's release while giving them the best chance to succeed. Another reason for Israel's restraint is the conference of the Gaza rehabilitation donor states to be convened in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday, with Secretary of State Clinton in attendance.
Officials in Jerusalem wish to avert a situation whereby this conference is exploited by the Palestinians in order to manage a propaganda campaign against Israel while taking decisions that condemn it. This will likely happen should Israel bomb or launch a ground incursion in Gaza in the next two days.
Southerners, Gazans paying price
A third reason for Israel's restraint is the weather, which makes it difficult to massively utilize the Air Force vis-à-vis Gaza Strip targets. The IDF's pilots and aircraft have the ability to strike in harsh weather conditions, yet the terrible vision and mostly the strong winds may divert even very accurate ammunition away from its intended targets. This would result in many uninvolved civilians casualties and needless destruction. Israel's international standing will also be hurt as a result.
Hamas is aware of all this, and therefore it is not scared of boosting the rate of attacks at this time – whether it fires directly or allows other groups to fire. Not only is Hamas not afraid to fire rockets, at this time it has a clear interest in provoking Israel through rocket terrorism. Through the attacks it attempts to press Israel to open the Gaza crossings. Without opening the crossings, Hamas would be unable to rebuild the Strip and mitigate the distress faced by residents – moves that are very important for the group's survival.
By resorting to attacks, Hamas also attempts to prove to Israelis that Operation Cast Lead did not secure its objectives and that the group had not been deterred. The organization believes that this truly hurts the government that ordered the IDF to embark on the operation and later to end it.
Those who pay the price are of course western Negev residents, who continue to sustain rockets, as well as Gaza's residents, who live in tents during the storms of winter while waiting for the rebuilding process to get underway. This vicious cycle will apparently only come to an end in about a week or two, when we find out once and for all whether there is a chance to end the Shalit case.