Analysis

With Eye on Bigger Threats, Israel Quickly Agrees to Hamas' Request for Cease-fire

After the most violent day of fighting in years, the indirect agreement is holding – because, among others, Israel made sure not to let things spin out of control

People stand in a sports ground damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Netivot, Israel, May 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

As of Wednesday morning, a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza has been in effect. The rocket and mortar fire from Gaza that trickled overnight has stopped and, accordingly, so have Israeli aerial attacks on Gaza.

This is not an official cease-fire. Senior political and military officials maintain that Israel has not signed anything with Hamas. The group's leadership in Gaza sent Israel a message though Egypt that they are willing to end attacks on Israel and rein in their smaller groups in Gaza. Israel, in response, said that calm would be met with calm. In the meantime, the indirect agreement is holding – because, among others, Israel made sure not to let things spin out of control.

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Overnight Tuesday, in the third round of attacks in 24 hours, no Palestinian casualties were reported – only serious damage to Gaza's military infrastructure. The Israel Defense Forces took advantage of the situation to hit Hamas' military capabilities – attacking, among other targets, an offensive attack tunnel, a drone warehouse and a production site for mortar shells. But the fact there were no casualties shows that the army is picking its targets carefully, and is being supremely cautious about not causing gratuitous escalation.

Israel Army Spokesperson

The lack of Israeli appetite to send ground forces into the Strip – which would end this time in trying to topple the Hamas regime – is palpable. As usual, though, the steps Israel takes depends on various factors: Had there been widespread injuries to civilians in the communities surrounding Gaza as a result of a barrage of mortar shells, it could have spurred the Israeli government to make other decisions. But for now, it seems mediation efforts staved off war.

Israel's decision-making process seems clear this time: The urgent problems facing the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff are the situation in Syria and the Iranian involvement there. Defense chief Avigdor Lieberman will fly to Moscow on Wednesday evening, in an effort to reach understandings on distancing Iranian forces and Shi'ite militias from the Israel-Syria border.

Compared to Syria, Gaza is considered a secondary front, and Israel does not currently have a clear goal there. Toppling the Hamas regime would entail a war that will have a significant price – and there is no certainty that the alternative, after Hamas, will necessarily be better.

Israeli intelligence officials explain Hamas' conduct in the last 24 hours roughly thus: Hamas has more or less eschewed firing rockets at Israelis since Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. During the last two months, it enforced its control over other organizations, insisting that they stick to protesting along the border fence, and trying to make international gains from the pictures of the deaths there.

A Palestinian militant stands guard near the destroyed Islamic Jihad military base after it was targeted by an Israeli warplane, the southern Gaza Strip May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
TOPSHOT - An Israeli army tank patrols along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 29, 2018.
Israel said it struck dozens of militant targets in the Gaza Strip today in response to a barrage of mortar and rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave in the most severe military flare-up since a 2014 war. / AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ
JACK GUEZ/AFP

But this avenue more or less exhausted itself mid-month, around Nakba Day: the 60 dead at the border gained them a statement of identification from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Israel and Turkey threw out each others' ambassadors and the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah was reopened. 

At the start of the week, the Islamic Jihad group was determined to avenge the blood of its three people killed by Israeli tank fire on Sunday. The group still had a score to settle with Israel since last October, when Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were killed in a bombing of an attack tunnel by Israel on the Gaza borer. The group has since failed to conduct a response.

Under pressure from Islamic Jihad, Hamas loosened the leash but may not have anticipated the force of the reaction on Tuesday. As matters escalated into an exchange of blows with Israel on Tuesday afternoon, Hamas entered the fray, lest it remain behind and be accused of behaving like the Palestinian Authority – meaning, collaborating with Israel. 

Through Tuesday night, "seditious" Palestinian factions, including the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees and Salafi organizations, joined the firefight. As of Wednesday morning, Hamas was trying to rein them in again – with a halt in rocket fire.

However, the equation must factor in the profound despair the Gazans are experiencing as their living conditions deteriorate; and also the heavy psychological price that the resumption of rocket fire from Gaza levies on the people living by the Strip, after a few years of quiet.

And, as always, we should bear in mind that Israel can't get into the heads of the other side's leadership and necessarily anticipate their decisions in the middle of a serious military crisis.