Israel’s security and political cabinet in Jerusalem and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip and Qatar Friday, July 25, decided to reject the “humanitarian” seven-day ceasefire put before them by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Both sides said they would consider the proposal with amendments, since neither wanted to be held responsible for derailing the process. And so both warring parties found it wise to leave the door ajar in case another round of negotiations came up with a better deal.
In the coming hours, Israel and Hamas must therefore consider where to go next.
Israeli ministers will have to decide whether to widen the scale of the counter-terror operation against Hamas and, if the decision is positive, to define its targets and limits.
Precise directives are now imperative because Israel’s war leaders, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, have changed the Operation Defensive Edge’s goals three times since it was launched 18 days ago.
First, they defined the objective as smashing Hamas military strength; then, to dismantle its rocket-launching and production facilities and, most recently, to demolish the vast subterranean complex of tunnels dug under the Gaza Strip, some of which are “terror” tunnels that snake under the border to Israeli civilian locations.
Both leaders warned frequently that time would be needed to finish any one of those missions.
And indeed, although much progress has been made, none of those goals has been fully achieved as yet, which was Israel's overriding military consideration for rejecting a ceasefire at this time.
Above all, the operation has not reached the Hamas high command, which has managed to stay safe in its elaborate bunker under the center of Gaza City, untouched even by heavy Israeli air bombardments.
The head of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Sami Torjeman said in an interview Friday that, in a week, the army had managed to destroy half of the tunnel network which took Hamas 4-5 years to build – a Herculean task. He also said he discerns a weakening in the Hamas fighting spirit and cases of commanders abandoning their men.
According to official figures, the IDF has located and taken control of 32 tunnels and demolished 15, giving priority to the passages running under the border into Israel. There is still plenty of work to be done: the complex subterranean cities running under Gaza cities, some 20 meters deep, have yet to be broached.
Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter pointed out that the IDF incursion has gone no deeper into the Gaza Strip than 1-2 kilometers (its total width is 6-12 kilometers).
Going deeper and penetrating the most densely populated urban areas would require a cabinet directive to expand the operation.
The Lebanese Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah picked up Friday on the dilemma exercising Israel when he said in one of his fiery speeches that, by the logic of the “resistance,” Hamas has won the war, simply by proving it was able to stand up to the IDF for 18 days without caving. Therefore, he said, Hamas and Israel are caught up in a “cycle of failure”
This was of course a Nasrallah-style exaggeration to give a beleaguered ally a morale boost.
debkafile’s military sources would define the balance of war at this stage as a draw with a small edge in Israel’s favor: The facts are clear: the IDF has not achieved any decisive successes in the first week of its ground operation. Hamas has demonstrated flexibility and tactical initiative by twice sending bands of commandos into Israel by tunnel and by sea for terrorist attacks, which were foiled; incarcerated more than 5 million Israelis in shelters by thousands of rockets, which caused hardly any damage or casualties, and partially shut down international air travel to Israel for 24 hours.
But Hamas has not won a single battle against the IDF troops fighting on its home ground – or even slowed down their advance into the Gaza Strip.
John Kerry hoped to use this moment of indecision between the two belligerents to push through a limited humanitarian truce for a week and so prevent the war escalating.
One of the reasons the Netanyahu government turned him down was that the deal would have given Hamas political and military parity with Israel for the first time, more than even this Islamist terrorist organization had thought to attain from its offensive.
Since neither Israel nor Hamas believes it has attained its war objectives, the fighting will continue, in the face of Kerry’s pledge in Cairo Friday to will carry on working on what he is confident is a “fundamental framework that will ultimately succeed in bringing peace to the Middle East.”