A tunnel here, a roadside bomb there, mortar bombs, Qassams, border closures, border openings, an Israeli military force enters, "rapid and effective operations," four killed, another six killed. The chocks that have until now kept the lull in the Gaza Strip in place, keeping it from rolling downhill, are failing with increasing speed and noise. Every party is careful not to declare that the cease-fire is over, since whoever does so will immediately be denounced as responsible for crushing that fragile construction. But the truth is, it's already gone. Almost five "normal" months since the deal was struck through indirect negotiations mediated by Egypt, and it's already time to prepare for the next stage.
Had things gone according to the deal secured in May, Israel would in about a month be announcing a lull in the West Bank, as well. It would stop arresting Hamas members and quit launching operations against their actions. In such a situation, Hamas would have been able to chalk up an extraordinary achievement: It - and not Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority - would have been responsible for reuniting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; it - not Fatah - would have seen to the Palestinians' security. Hamas' deterrent power, through which the organization achieved the lull, would have become a powerful political lever that would have forced Abbas to face the question: How to continue to be president when Hamas' hand is on the control switch of the armed struggle, not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank? How not to turn into a Lebanese president, dependent upon the goodwill of a rival armed organization?
Without the tahadiyeh, of course, the question doesn't exist. But the sneaking suspicion is that the "Abbas question" does worry Israel, and that Israel's decision to nibble away at the tahadiyeh is connected to the situation in West Bank. After all, since the cease-fire went into effect, Israel has had some pretty good reasons to renege on the agreement and to launch an assault on Gaza. Arms and explosives have made their way to the Strip virtually undetected, tunnels continued to be dug and bombs planted throughout the territory against an Israeli ground invasion. Last week's "ticking tunnel," dug ostensibly to facilitate the abduction of Israeli soldiers, was not a clear and present danger: Its existence was always known and its use could have been prevented on the Israeli side, or at least the soldiers stationed beside it removed from harm's way.
It is impossible to claim that those who decided to blow up the tunnel were simply being thoughtless. The military establishment was aware of the immediate implications of the measure, as well as of the fact that the policy of "controlled entry" into a narrow area of the Strip leads to the same place: an end to the lull. That is policy - not a tactical decision by a commander on the ground.
If the collapse of the tahadiyeh was brought into the equation, then the question must be asked whether the IDF is better prepared now than it was last year to enter the Gaza Strip and reoccupy it. If the answer is yes, then the next question is whether a broad operation in Gaza at this time would not appear more like electioneering than a practical measure to end terror, and more like taking advantage of the transition period in the United States between the outgoing and incoming presidents to create the facts on the ground. One more niggling question: Is the IDF prepared now to jeopardize the chances of Gilad Shalit's release - Shalit, who is increasingly being forgotten - with a major operation in Gaza?
If the IDF is not prepared to do so and the cabinet does not want a broad operation in Gaza, then what's the point of shattering the lull or stretching it to the breaking point?
Is the damage that Qassams could wreak on the communities of the western Negev less important than a possible explosive charge laid at the border, or a tunnel dug beneath it?
It's hard to find any logic in this new policy unless one looks to the West Bank again and realizes that the last thing Israel means to do is to let Hamas dictate a cease-fire there, too. Israel would rather restrict the battlefield to what the south is already "accustomed," than to give Hamas more areas of influence, if not control. At all costs, Hamas must not be given an excuse to apply the tahadiyeh in the West Bank as well. If that means Qassams falling on Sderot, then so be it. But it would be a good idea for someone to explain this to the people living in the western Negev, so they can prepare themselves. This time we cannot assume that Arcadi Gaydamak will once again send buses in to whisk everyone away to resorts.