Thursday night, before midnight, at the time that the newspapers were about to close their weekend print editions, the Al-Jazeera television network cited Egyptian sources as saying that a cease-fire had been reached between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A few minutes later, a foreign diplomat who is involved in the talks seconded the claim. Both sides agreed to stop shooting and the understandings would take effect at midnight, he said. The Israelis were actually the ones to rush to deny the claims, in a text message sent out to reporters. “The report on a supposed cease-fire is not correct,” read the message.
Now it's Friday morning, and in what is difficult to describe as a surprise, it seems once again as if the Palestinian and Egyptian version of the events behind the scenes is much more trustworthy that the Israeli version. During the night, no exchanges of fire were recorded along the border with the Gaza Strip. Not a single rocket was fired – and despite the threatening briefings the television stations received from security cabinet members on Thursday, Israeli Air Force planes remained on the ground too.
The Home Front Command lifted its special restrictions for civilians in the south on Friday morning. Even if Israel is hiding behind the statement “quiet will be met with quiet,” and has declared it is not conducting negotiations with Hamas, in practice this is a cease-fire.
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It is also a replay, beat by beat, of the way in which one of previous rounds of escalation in Gaza ended at the end of May. Then too, an announcement of a cease-fire came from Cairo and Gaza late at night, and then too, a vehement Israeli denial was issued – as usual, attributed to “senior officials” – which turned out to be baseless the next morning. The only difference is that every time, fewer journalists fall into the trap. Those who managed to check things out with officers in the Israel Defense Forces on Thursday were generally more cautious in their forecasts.
But in this case, it seems most of the blame blame does not lie with the media. Fifteen minutes before the evening news broadcast, 15 minutes before the newspapers went down to print – these are the times of maximum spin. When the journalists and columnists are obligated to publish their information quickly, at the height of a security crisis, the machines of deception go into action.
As usual, no one in the cabinet thought this morning that they had to be accountable to the public. The decisions on the policies concerning Gaza directly affect hundreds of thousands of Israelis: Residents of the region near the Gaza border, residents of the entire south of Israel, and parents of IDF combat soldiers who hear on the news that a ground offensive against Gaza is under consideration.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and most other ministers have avoided explaining their considerations to the public. Even their very active Twitter accounts have gone almost silent since the latest escalation began on Tuesday. So what if we said and promised and lied? Today is the beginning of a new day. You'll soon forget.
A thundering silence
In practical terms, it is possible to find logic in the security cabinet’s policy. Netanyahu has been doing quite a lot over these past few weeks to avoid a costly and superfluous war. There is no need to rush to enter Gaza when all alternative channels have not been completely exhausted, while it is also not clear what Israel wants to achieve.
But this thundering silence, compared to the regular blabber during normal times, and especially given the deceptive denials on Thursday night, is grating. It erodes the public’s faith in the actions of the political leadership and will reawaken doubts as to their decisions, even if a decision is made in the end to escalate steps taken against Hamas.
Blowing a tactical smokescreen around the IDF’s plans is legitimate in a near-war situation. This is how Israel acted on the eve of beginning Operation Cast Lead in 2008. But so far, this looks like an effort to mislead for internal political reasons, whose main consideration is to defend against political criticism.
The claims that “Hamas suffered a severe blow” raise numerous questions, certainly in light of the very frequent use of the phrase over the past decade. The attacks by the Air Force definitely deny Hamas certain military assets, but the thought that this will also put an end to the organization’s fighting spirit seems absurd.
Israeli intelligence has erred time after time in reading how Hamas made decisions during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014. Will a government and population that somehow manage to function with four hours of electricity a day this summer raise a white flag just because the IDF destroyed a five-story building yesterday in an aerial attack in the Shati refugee camp? (After the IDF – justifiably – spent two hours making sure that all the residents had evacuated the building.)
The cease-fire that was reached last night, as it turns out, seems fragile and temporary. Israel still can strike harshly in Gaza in response to the next violation of the calm on the part of Hamas. But to stabilize the situation a bit, the Egyptian mediators and U.N. officials need to quickly reach a “small arrangement” – a commitment to a complete halt to the violent protests and incendiary kites and balloons (and not just the rocket fire) – in return for easing the restrictions on fishing areas and cancelling the severe limitations on the entry of goods through the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
The “big arrangement” – a solution to the problem of the Israeli missing and captives, reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and the beginning of the rehabilitation of the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip – seems for now to be very difficult to achieve. At the moment, the impression is that another round of escalation could come very quickly and recent events have only increased Hamas’ self-confidence, not weakened it.