After 19 days of fighting and more than 1,000 Palestinian fatalities, the first significant signs that Hamas is breaking could be seen Wednesday night. Hamas representatives to talks with Egypt announced an agreement in principle on Wednesday to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. They also demanded several clarifications, primarily from Israel.
The war in Gaza isn't over yet. The final days of the Second Lebanon War show that it's best to be wary of agreements that come too early. But the way things looked on Wednesday, Hamas seems to be willing to accept the Egyptian initiative, which is almost a kind of surrender agreement for it.
The Egyptian proposal is mostly bad for Hamas. It doesn't let the organization bring the Palestinian public any political achievement that would justify the blood that has been spilled, and even forces on it the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, in the form of its renewed presence at the Rafah crossing (as a condition for its reopening).
Once the cease-fire is reached, the IDF will withdraw from the positions it captured in Gaza, and only then will the two sides begin to discuss the opening of border crossings and removal of the blockade, which was the reason Hamas gave for waging war. The most that Cairo is offering is a timetable for the opening of the crossing points, and even that depends on negotiations due to begin after the cease-fire is reached, and it's tough to know how or when they will end.
Hamas representatives did say on Wednesday night they had not yet accepted the Egyptian proposal, but in the same breath they said it was the only proposal on the table. In other words, they have to accept it if they want to maintain their rule in Gaza. It was no coincidence that two representatives of the Hamas leadership in Gaza who traveled to the Cairo talks are the ones who held the official press conference, while the Hamas political leadership was already on their way home to Damascus. When concessions are necessary, Hamas prefers to show the public the face of their true representatives rather than the ones living elsewhere, who are not living in Gaza during the Israeli offensive.
The tremendous destruction Israel caused in Gaza significantly increases the level of hatred directed at Israel, but Gazans are also angry at Hamas leaders for dragging the Strip into an unnecessary and poorly considered war. Hamas is already working on its narrative. There's no doubt that when the war does end, it will claim victory. But the destruction in Gaza, which looks like the victim of a massive earthquake, will tell a different story. Perhaps that is why Hamas wanted to make it clear yesterday that it wants to make certain Gaza will be rebuilt and its residents will be compensated for suffering and property damage.
The Hamas statement came as Israeli defense officials were gradually reaching similar conclusions regarding the need for a quick cease-fire. Defense Ministry and top generals have expressed reservations about expanding the ground incursion in Gaza and support bringing the war to a quick end. Some say Israel has already done all it could with all possible goals of the Gaza operation and has proven that it is no longer deterred by a serious conflict with Hamas or by sending in ground forces and reservists.
Several said it would be best to end the operation now, when Israeli deterrence has improved - and before U.S. President George W. Bush makes way for his successor, Barack Obama, on January 20. And some of the participants in Israeli discussions about the issue have expressed support for a quick withdrawal under a cease-fire declaration, even before an agreement is reached on weapons-smuggling.
The Israel Defense Force's Southern Command is in the minority, interested as it is in deepening the operation - but conditioning this on putting a cap of several months on the time limit for soldiers in the field and Shin Bet security service agents.
Some in the IDF think the army succeeded in reaching its military goal, and that now the rest depends on the diplomats. This morning Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad goes to Cairo, and he is eagerly expected back this evening to report on where things stand. Alongside the degree of optimism, one must remember that having thousands of soldiers in hostile territory is a recipe for continued friction, and maybe some mishaps.
The IDF has always had a problem with maintaining operational discipline over a long period, especially when reserve forces are involved. On Wednesday, with the active assistance of bloggers, false rumors were spread saying that Gilad Shalit had been rescued from captivity. That didn't happen, but if nothing goes wrong with the plans in the next few days, Israel has a decent chance of ending this conflict while maintaining the upper hand.
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