The four-way meeting underway in Cairo provides the next exit point, perhaps the most significant, before operation Pillar of Defense spills over into a difficult ground campaign inside the Gaza Strip. The presidents of Egypt and Turkey and the emir of Qatar (who is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood but maintains close ties with the organization) are apparently expected to exert pressure on Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' military wing, to persuade Hamas to agree to a quick cease-fire.
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If the major forces of Sunni Islam in the region act as responsible adults, there is still a chance that Gaza will not see a reprise of Operation Cast Lead, an experience whose scars Gaza Strip residents still bear four years later.
Egypt is especially interested in calming things down to shore up the status of the new regime in the Arab world and score points in Washington, which must make a decision soon on economic aid to Cairo.
At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces are continuing their buildup near the Gaza Strip. Friday night, cabinet ministers gave their approval by telephone for the call-up of 75,000 reservists, a force equal to a few divisions. Most of the reservists have not yet been called up, but the forces are now beginning to assemble throughout the Negev.
This move has a dual purpose. It helps deter Hamas, making clear that Israel's intentions are serious (it will not hesitate to send forces into the Strip if required ). It also makes it possible to actually prepare, if Hamas should refuse a cease-fire proposal.
This is a critical juncture. Major operational and intelligence efforts are required to neutralize the threat of 40-kilometer-range Katyushas and Grad rockets. On Saturday, a certain let-up was noted in the rocket fire. The rocket successfully fired at Tel Aviv Saturday, intercepted by Iron Dome, was an eight-inch (200 millimeter ) rocket produced in Gaza and launched by Islamic Jihad. A good many of the real Fajr-5 Iranian-made rockets indeed seem to have been destroyed in the first phase of the operation.
However, at least Saturday, it seemed that Hamas was managing to preserve its chain of command, despite the assassination of Ahmed Jabari. Senior figures are probably avoiding assassination by hiding in the network of tunnels the organization has dug under Gaza City.
As of last night, since the start of the operation more than 40 Palestinians have been killed and more than 300 wounded. Most of those killed were members of terror organizations. Israel has managed so far to limit the number of civilian casualties because it has used its air power very carefully. But the people of Gaza, who are not protected by tunnels like the heads of Hamas, are suffering, and are very afraid of an Israeli ground operation.
Is everything that has happened over the past three and a half days enough to make Hamas give up? In talks in Cairo, the Palestinian delegation is taking a hard line, according to the first reports. Hamas wants the naval and land siege lifted (a demand that also involves Cairo, which has not yet freely opened the Rafah crossing to Egypt ), an Israeli pledge to refrain from further attacks, and international guarantees that Israel will follow through.
Israel's main goal is to ensure long-term quiet, to obtain a promise to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israeli communities and on IDF patrols along both sides of the border fence. One of the difficulties at the moment in reaching an agreement involves the lack of a sufficiently dominant broker to clinch the deal. However, right after the visit of Egypt's premier, Hisham Kandil, in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Egyptian intelligence officials headed by Raafat Shehata immediately began coordinating talks on a cease-fire.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and his deputy Musa Abu-Marzuk landed in Cairo yesterday morning and met with Shehata for more than two hours, conveying their demands to him. It may be assumed that there are major gaps between these demands as they are aired publicly and what Hamas knows it can actually achieve.
Yet, Hamas seem encouraged by the recurring sentiment expressed by Arab spokesmen - that the Middle East has changed and that "what Israel could have done in the past it can no longer do because of the involvement of Arab countries."
As potent a threat as Israel's call-up may be, it has its risks. It impacts the economy, increases tension among civilians and reservists alike, and pressures the leadership to approve a ground operation, not to mention exposing soldiers amassing in the open in the south to attack, as happened when the Katyusha fell on the soldiers gathering at Kfar Giladi during the Second Lebanon War.
Iron Dome has given decision-makers a significant boon with the number of successful intercepts now more than 200, an amazing average 88-percent success rate. But it may be assumed that in a prolonged campaign, the home front will be increasingly exposed to attack and Israel will be increasingly subject to international pressure to end the operation. Few in the government or the General Staff are enthusiastic over the prospect of a ground operation, an option Israel will apparently choose only as a last resort.
The current leadership has no great aspirations to topple the Hamas regime; it only hopes that causing Hamas more damage will rein in for a relatively long time its desire to go another violent round with Israel.
Speaking in closed forums, officials say a successful operation will put off the next round by a few months, maybe a year. People spoiling for a ground operation are not decision-makers, but ministers and MKs caught up in the spirit of the election campaign.
But even in the context of the relatively reasonable approach of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the statements by Brig. Gen. (res. ) Moshe Tamir, former commander of the Gaza Division, perhaps the most brilliant officer ever to have led IDF troops in the last decade, should be heeded. According to Tamir, boots on the ground will "require another price entirely, in terms of soldiers' lives and the unintentional deaths of Palestinian civilians, because it will be impossible to continue to work surgically."
Noting that the current Gaza operation reminds him of the opening stages of the Second Lebanon War - surgical air strikes after which we were dragged unwillingly and with no clear goals into ground action, he says: "The worst thing that can happen to us is that election rhetoric will push us into an action whose purpose is not clear. A limited ground action will unfortunately not achieve deterrence. That is an unattainable goal; we must be realistic," Tamir said.