ANALYSIS / The ball is now in Hamas' court in Gaza
In the long run, Israel hopes deterrence and an arrangement to stop smuggling will bring peace to the south.
Twenty-two days after launching its campaign against Hamas, Israel announced on Saturday it was pulling the plug. But the cabinet's decision to declare a unilateral cease-fire while maintaining a military presence in areas seized by the Israel Defense Forces is only a conditional cease-fire.
The ball is now in Hamas' hands. The IDF presence on the ground, combined with the fact that the crossings will remain closed for the time being, may prompt it to continue firing rockets into Israel. And indeed Hamas' representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, threatened on Saturday that "If we don't get what we want, we will continue to fire rockets."
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi informed the ministers during Saturday's meeting which yielded the decision that the IDF forces have met all their objectives in this mission. The IDF now prefers a quick pullout from the Strip so as not to expose troops to further, unnecessary risks.
For now, the decision-makers have decided to overrule this preference. However, if it emerges that Hamas will gradually come to accept the cease-fire, the troops will pull out.
The key question as far as Israel is concerned is, starting Sunday, how to respond to the next rocket that lands in the western Negev. We have already failed that very test at least three times in the past: After the pullout from Lebanon in 2000, after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and during the cease-fire with Hamas in 2008.
In all the aforementioned cases, the threat of a harsh response on Israel's part turned out to be an empty one, and hostilities against Israel continued to trickle in, eventually resulting in a major conflagration.
In the longer run, Israel is hoping that the combination of the deterrence it has gained vis-a-vis Hamas and an international arrangement to prevent smuggling from Egypt into the Gaza Strip through the so-called Philadelphi Route will bring peace to the people of southern Israel for a relatively long period of time.
Should the fighting indeed subside, we are in store for a fierce struggle to set the narrative for the war. Three weeks before the elections, the government will seek to convince the public that the results of the recent round of hostilities were worth the effort. Hamas, in turn, will try to stress to its audience and public its ability to withstand the attack, and in the future could try to present a possible opening of the crossings into Gaza as an achievement.
The deal concerning Hamas will be tough to market in Israel because it does not include an arrangement for the retrieval of Gilad Shalit. This in an emotional issue, as can be seen in the graffiti that IDF soldiers left in many houses in the Strip: "Gilad, we were here."
And so Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will have to work extra hard and put in overtime to explain that the blow dealt to Hamas will improve Israel's bargaining position in a future deal to bring back Shalit.
Hamas' last-minute refusal to accept the Egyptian cease-fire initiative is not very surprising. Khaled Meshal, Hamas' political leader in Damascus, knew from the media that the Israeli government does not wish to move on to the third phase of the attack - in other words expanding the ground offensive. He also knew, based on what he saw on the ground, that his organization has sustained a harsh blow and is bleeding in the water. And so he rejected the initiative, also for the sake of appearing to spurn a complete surrender.
Meanwhile, Israel was looking for a dignified retreat, which it found in the understanding that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reached with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for cracking down on smuggling across the Philadelphi Route.
The Israeli decision to opt for a unilateral cease-fire, instead of pressing ahead with efforts to reach a cease-fire based on the Egyptian initiative, caused Cairo some discomfort. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Saturday accused Israel of being drunk with power. Egypt is fearful that a pullout not backed by an understanding between the parties will soon result in a another round of hostilities.
As for the military performance of the IDF, there is little doubt that under Ashkenazi and GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant the army demonstrated an immeasurably improved level of performance compared with what we saw in 2006 in Lebanon. But it also merits mentioning that the troops were not facing the same adversary here. It would be better to refrain from extrapolations that would lead to false conclusions as to how another round of hostilities with Hezbollah might look. In Gaza, the IDF thrust forward with only five divisions, all operating within a relatively small area.
Supplying such a force with a very comprehensive umbrella of air support, intelligence and logistics is a very doable mission.
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