The events over the past 24 hours in the Gaza Strip leave some room for cautious optimism among the politicians and the defense establishment. Since the cease-fire went into effect Friday night at midnight, only one incendiary balloon was spotted, on Saturday. While the balloon caused a large fire in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, it represents a sharp drop compared to the 10 to 20 daily fires on average that have occurred over the past few months.
Israel has not signed any agreement with Hamas. But in the unofficial understandings conveyed to National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat by Egyptian intelligence, it was stated explicitly this time that Hamas would work to stop the launching of burning kites and balloons.
Egypt also agreed to make sure of this – and these are two major changes compared to the previous cease-fire, which collapsed the weekend before.
Israel is attributing the change to the intensity of its air strikes on the Gaza Strip on Friday, which were accompanied by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s open threat of war. Israeli media were told that Hamas blinked first, and it was also claimed that the organization had begged for a cease-fire through a host of mediation channels.
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This description of the course of events ignores the fact that Hamas asked for the cease-fire after it had already done its job – killing an Israel Defense Forces soldier, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levy – in a sniper attack in retaliation for the killing of a Hamas operative near the fence the day before. This relative optimism on the part of Israeli officials also fails to take into account Egypt’s past difficulty in keeping promises it makes during its mediation between the sides. Although Hamas is demonstrating its ability to restrain the kite-launchers, it is impossible to ignore other variables: Small Palestinian factions, those described as “rogue,” are capable of igniting a renewed escalation, and Islamic Jihad, financed by Iran, can reshuffle the deck if it initiates its own action.
If the quiet is maintained, Israel and Hamas will have to overcome the next, higher hurdle. Hamas expects a quick easing of the blockade on the Gaza Strip in return for the cease-fire. The IDF is indeed suggesting that the government grant extensive relief. Lieberman, who visited the Kerem Shalom crossing on Sunday, promised to reopen it to regular traffic on Tuesday if the quiet continues.
But the Palestinians are expecting much more than this. They want to see the start of a comprehensive fix of the infrastructure problems in the Gaza Strip, the approval of new economic projects and permits for Gazans to work in the Sinai Peninsula and perhaps even in Israel. These are measures that Israel is unwilling to consider as long as the remains of its two soldiers and two missing civilians are not returned. Since Hamas is conditioning their return on the release of dozens of its prisoners in the West Bank – those who were released in the Gilad Shalit deal and re-arrested in 2014 after the kidnap-murders of three youths in Gush Etzion – we are actually back to square one.
There are two possibilities for getting out of this endless loop and both have been raised in recent days. The first concerns launching the American plan to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip, some details of which have been published by Trump government representatives in the American press. The second, related one is based on a possible breakthrough in the lengthy reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Delegations from Gaza and Ramallah have been in Cairo for a long time. A broad move that includes these two factions could delay the threat of war. Until now, though, it doesn’t seem that those involved (Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority) are willing to take the additional, necessary step to hasten Gaza’s reconstruction.
Evacuation yes, refuge no
In an impressive IDF operation in southern Syria on Saturday night, hundreds of members of the White Helmets, volunteers who assisted the victims of the Assad regime, were evacuated to Jordan along with their families, saving them from the approaching Syrian Army forces.
Members of this organization, which has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, have played an important role in informing the international community of the murderous campaign that Syrian President Bashar Assad has been conducting against his own countrymen, with the help of the Russian air forces’ indiscriminate bombing. The fact that the White Helmets’ reports had exposed the severity of Assad’s war crimes led to a broad Russian disinformation campaign against them.
Israel acceded to the request of several Western countries and evacuated the organization’s members from Syria through its territory in the Golan Heights and from there to Jordan. The Jordanians agreed to host them for several months (in addition to the 1.3 million Syrian refugees already in their territory) in return for the British, German and Canadian governments’ promise to absorb the activists and their families later on.
But the unusual move also highlights what Israel is not prepared to do: It will not take in refugees from the battle zones in the Golan or fighters from the rebel groups. These vulnerable people will have to reach surrender agreements with the Syrians regime and swear allegiance to Assad. This will happen in most of the Golan Heights in the near future, as the Russian air force crushes the enclave of Islamic State fighters that still remains in the southern Golan Heights.