Israel and a Palestinian delegation to talks in Cairo, including Hamas, were due to start observing a 72-hour ceasefire in the Gaza Strip starting Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 8 a.m., to be followed by negotiations under Egyptian aegis for a long-term cessation of hostilities.
This decision flies in the face of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s solemn pledge 48 hours earlier to continue Operation Defensive Edge until Hamas and its terrorist allies stopped firing rockets (a massive barrage was fired up to five minutes to eight).
He stated that Israel was turning away from ceasefire accords, which Hamas had violated six times causing IDF fatalities, and reserving its military and diplomatic freedom of action to act solely in its own security interests. “No accommodation, only deterrence” was the motto of the moment Saturday night, Aug. 2.
Even as he spoke, the bulk of Israel’s ground troops were on their way out of the Gaza Strip. But he assured the public that they were regrouping and refreshing ranks for a new, offensive formation that would stand ready to cross back in a trice if necessary.
But already then, the prime minister had quietly conceded to the demands of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to withdraw IDF contingents from the Gaza Strip. This was in obedience to Hamas’ precondition for talks, following which Israeli envoys would present themselves in Cairo for indirect negotiations on a long-term accommodation with Hamas through Egyptian intermediaries.
The slogan designed for the goal of these talks was now: “Rehabilitation in exchange for demilitarization.”
By Monday, when the ceasefire deal was already in the bag, the prime minister, defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and a group of senior officers led by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, met the community leaders of the 250,000 Israelis whose homes and lands abut the Gaza Strip. They promised the communities that, for the first time in 13 years, they would be safe from Palestinian rocket fire.
The IDF would build a new security fence enclosing Gaza like the barrier along the Egyptian border and instal a home guard system backed by electronic sensors and other gadgets in all their communities.
Doubters, who wondered how a fence would stop rockets and the underground terror tunnels burrowed surreptitiously under their homes, were not heeded. By then, tens of thousands of reservists called up for the Gaza war were being released and columns of tanks and heavy equipment were heading north.
The military traffic rolling away from the Gaza Strip was so heavy Monday night that the police issued a notice to civilian drivers using those roads.
When the 72-hour ceasefire was announced after midnight Monday, a “high-ranking Israel official” noted that if the ceasefire holds, an Israeli military presence in Gaza will not be necessary. He said Israel had upheld its commitment not to accept ceasefire deal with Hamas, so long as it was accompanied by preconditions and until the terror tunnels were dismantled. The 32nd tunnel was destroyed Monday night, he announced, and the work would continue henceforth on the Israeli side of the border.
A former National Security Adviser Gen (res) Giora Eiland, summed up the month-long Israeli military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a draw between the two adversaries, with neither side the winner. This judgment, shared by many military experts contradicted the way the operation’s outcome is presented by the prime minister and defense minister who directed it. They describe Hamas as reeling from the heavy damage the IDF wrought to its military machine and weakened enough to be finished off at the negotiating table in Cairo.
Israel reckons that around 50 percent of the 1,867 Gazans estimated killed and 9,500 injured in the operation were Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters.
The damage was undoubtedly heavy, but still Hamas has come out of the Israeli offensive standing on its feet, an outcome that will have profound political and security ramifications upon and beyond the forthcoming Cairo negotiations.
The reality facing Israel’s war planners at home is also grim: For the first time, the country comes out of a major conflict with a domestic refugee problem. Longtime inhabitants of the region around the Gazan border who have lost homes, property or livelihood have nothing to return to after the ceasefire.
There are no official figures for Israel’s internal refugee problem, but it is believed that up to half of the quarter of a million people inhabiting 57 communities, many of them kibbutzim and private farms, who fled during the hostilities, may refuse to return.
While many endured 13 years of on-and-off rocket fire, they are consumed by the dread of Hamas terrorists jumping out of tunnels in their fields, classrooms or kitchens.
They point to negative side of the IDF official statement: “We have destroyed all the tunnels we know about” as being far from an ironclad guarantee to have obliterated that menace. And the rockets never let up for a single day in the month-long IDF operation – 3,300 in all.
Israel’s first ghost villages are clearly visible to the enemy and no doubt chalked up on the credit side of the Hamas war ledger.
Haim Yelin, head of the Eshkol District Council said Monday that 75 percent of the frontline population has moved north. He said he believes the assurances he received from Netanyahu and Ya’alon that the IDF has solved the tunnel threat and would provide the communities with protection against new tunnels. But he said, people are no longer willing to live under the threat of terrorist rocket fire, which they don’t believe has been finally curbed.
This credibility gap is part of the general unease over the outcome of this long-delayed counter-terror operation. It started out with 86 percent of the population canvassed holding high hopes of curing the festering terrorist woe emanting from the Gaza Strip. But now, Israel’s leaders, no less than Hamas, face a rehabilitation challenge – not just the reconstruction of damaged businesses, farms and buildings, but also of faith in government.