The claim repeated by the defense establishment in recent weeks is that Hamas is not correctly reading Israel’s intentions. The measures decided on Sunday, after the cease-fire went into effect Saturday night, indicate that Israel is trying to correct this impression.
The security cabinet instructed the army to intensify its response against the Gazan cells launching incendiary kites and balloons. At the same time, Iron Dome batteries were deployed in the Dan region and a limited mobilization of reserves involved in aerial defense was announced.
All this was meant to convey to Hamas that Israel isn’t afraid of a military confrontation and is prepared if needed to take even harsher measures. Still, despite the tough declarations by government ministers and the emergency atmosphere in television studios, this isn’t a war. Egyptian intelligence continues to mediate between the parties and so long as the number of casualties doesn’t rise, war can be prevented.
Officially Israel isn’t negotiating with Hamas, but Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman is in close contact with Egyptian intelligence officials, even as the UN special envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, is also involved in mediation efforts. As far as can be determined, the understandings reached are pretty general. Israel has conveyed that along with a halt to the firing of rockets and mortars, the cease-fire must include a stop to the violent incidents along the Gaza border fence and a halt to the burning balloons and kites.
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Hamas, on the other hand, claims that the kites and demonstrations reflect legitimate popular protest over which in any case it has no control. Arab media outlets reported that Hamas promised the Egyptians to gradually reduce the scope of the incendiary kite launches. On Sunday the fires in the forests and fields in the Gaza border region continued, albeit on a smaller scale that in recent days.
During the security cabinet meeting Sunday afternoon, an argument broke out between Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Bennett reiterated his demand, which has recently gotten support from Likud ministers, to strike the kite-launchers directly. Eizenkot asked whether Bennett could justify harming children.
Bennett said no, but added that commanders should be empowered to hit kite-launchers when it is clear that they are adults. The chief of staff replied that dropping bombs from airplanes on a squad of balloon- or kite-fliers is not in keeping with how the army does business.
This argument wasn’t really settled, but the security cabinet did order the Israel Defense Forces “to stop the kite terror” – in other words, to intensify retaliation over the incendiary kites. This would apparently mean more warning fire at the cells, attacks on Hamas’ logistical chain (warehouses and vehicles) that supplies them, and at times even an attack on the cell members themselves. On Sunday there were reports of a few Palestinians wounded by IDF fire on kite-launching cells.
But at the moment it still looks like a war of attrition, not a confrontation that is escalating. The IDF is preparing for more, of course. The anti-missile batteries in the center of the country are part of the readiness for escalation, while military exercises that had been planned in advance are being utilized to sharpen the readiness of the ground forces for confrontation.
The ministers were told that Hamas had sent almost desperate messages asking for a cease-fire on Saturday. That’s encouraging, but the security cabinet still remembers what happened during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. Then, even though intelligence officials repeatedly assessed that Hamas wanted the fighting to end, the organization stubbornly kept it up for 51 days.
Even though the IDF says Hamas was surprised by the magnitude of the army’s assaults over the weekend, it’s unlikely to be enough to bring about a long-term cease-fire. The shape of the economy and civil infrastructure in the Gaza Strip is too awful for Hamas to come to terms with the existing situation. The events of the last months show that the organization’s leadership in the Strip is willing to take risks to change the situation, even if the steps it takes lead the parties dangerously close to a new war.
Achieving a long-term cease-fire would require agreement to major humanitarian steps for the Gaza Strip. But here, as has been noted in the past, the main obstacle is the missing and captive Israelis in Gaza. Israel won’t take the steps Hamas wants without a breakthrough on that dispute, and Hamas won’t discuss it unless Israel releases many more Palestinian prisoners than it is prepared to at this point. Another obstacle is the conduct of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is unwilling to support any serious infrastructure project in the Strip.
As usual when it comes to Gaza, it is Bennett who is breathing down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s neck. Bennett on Sunday presented a detailed plan to the security cabinet which he described as performing a “root canal” on Hamas, which includes diplomatic, civil and security aspects. Two of the ministers argued with him, and Bennett was even accused of being “defeatist,” because of one of his plan’s components. The tension in the security cabinet and full cabinet are obvious – just as they were on the eve of Operation Protective Edge.