July 26, 2014
The brief break in fighting gives Gaza residents a chance to stock up on food and pull out bodies from the rubble, but it also allows Hamas to prepare for combat. Meanwhile, the IDF will continue searching for tunnels in the narrow zone it controls in the Gaza Strip’s east.
Friday night’s cabinet meeting, which continued after Shabbat began, concluded with the rejection of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s cease-fire proposal. Ministers described the American proposal as “simply awful.” According to the ministers, not only does the American initiative position Hamas as a legitimate partner for negotiations, it also includes a series of guarantees stipulating that the organizations’ demands from Egypt will ultimately be addressed. Meanwhile, Kerry found it sufficient to recognize Israel’s security needs only in the most general terms.
The Netanyahu administration has made fundamental demands – Gaza’s demilitarization – as well as more urgent ones. The most important condition that came up in recent discussions was allowing the IDF additional time to destroy the tunnel network. So far more than 30 tunnels have been uncovered, half of which have been bombed. Since this part of the operation is taking place in an area that is already under the military’s control, Israel is likely to stick to this demand.
Hamas leaders, who have rejected Kerry’s initiative as well, evidently hoped that Israel would accept it first, just as it did with cease-fire proposals in previous rounds of fighting. The cabinet’s rejection caught them by surprise.
But perhaps an end to the violence is in sight. The scope of destruction and suffering in the Gaza Strip is unfathomable. The death toll is nearing 900. In recent days reports are emerging of entire families being killed in Israeli strikes. The scars in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyeh and the village of Khouza’a, east of Khan Yunis, where heavy battles have resulted in Israeli casualties, are reminiscent of the devastation caused in Beirut’s Dahieh in 2006. It is possible that the humanitarian cease-fire, which will reveal the extent of the damage, will push Hamas to realize that a truce agreement is preferable, or alternately, that the break in fighting should be extended until the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Monday.
Israel’s General Staff is under the impression that the forces have managed to establish a type of security zone in the region between the border fence and the outskirts of Gaza’s urban area, stretching in some places as far as three kilometers into the Strip, according to Palestinian reports.
Most Hamas cells have fled this area, where the tunnels are located. Operatives emerge from time to time from tunnel openings or adjacent neighborhoods, and try to attack Israeli forces with explosives, antitank missiles, mortar shells and sniper fire. The IDF death toll, while significant (four soldiers were killed in fighting on Friday), has not reached a number that the military cannot bear. The assumption is that the IDF can maintain its hold on the zone in relative security as long as the forces remain on the move and do not expose themselves to unnecessary attacks. The primary concerns are over attempts to booby-trap homes and kidnap soldiers. On Friday, in Khouza’a, an attempted kidnapping was thwarted, at a great price: Two soldiers from the Engineering Corps were killed in a battle with a militant cell. Three Hamas gunmen were killed.
As of now, Hamas’ abduction attempts have failed. On Friday, following a brave move on the part of Chief Military Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, the IDF declared Sgt. Oron Shaul, who was hit in an attack on an APC in Shujaiyeh on Sunday, as killed in action. Peretz reached this decision based on various findings and after consulting with doctors, identification experts and rabbis. The Shaul family has had trouble accepting a declaration based on partial information, and is likely to lead a public battle over the matter. But the decision, which the IDF insists was purely professional, prevents Hamas from using the incident to pressure Israel.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Gaza is stoking violence in the West Bank. Between Thursday night andSaturday morning nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire. Members of Fatah, Hamas and other groups took part in organizing the major protest in Qalandiyah, north of Jerusalem. Fatah announced on Friday that the “protests of rage” are to be moved to city centers in the West Bank, evidently to limit friction with Israel. Nevertheless, these events are far more serious than the ones that took place during the previous Israeli operations in Gaza, Cast Lead and Defensive Shield. It appears that the Palestinian security forces are having trouble maintaining control of the situation.
Is this the start of a third intifada? Some signs indicate as much. What’s certain is that in Gaza, due to the death toll and the intensity of the fighting, a real war is underway, even if it hasn’t been given an official name and regardless of the possibility that the international mediation efforts could stop the combat next week.