Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced they had reached a ceasefire with Israel. This hopefully puts an end to the brutal escalation which has taken place in the region over the last few weeks. Since March 30, at least 121 Palestinians have been killed in horrific altercations near the border. The announcement came after an escalation occurring on Tuesday which saw Hamas shoot rockets into Israel and the Israeli Air Force commit several bombing runs in the Gaza Strip.
While welcome, the reports appear to be inaccurate. Israel did not officially agree to a ceasefire. Sensing that it had attained the upper hand in the emerging confrontation between the sides, Israel has avoided direct negotiation over an end to the crisis. An Israeli officer noted with satisfaction that “Hamas is ready to talk about anything to save itself…it is in the worst position it has been since it was established.” Instead, Hamas negotiated a ceasefire arrangement with the Egyptian government, hoping that Israel would ease off once it was clear the Islamic movement was headed towards de-escalation.
The announcement is indeed a defeat for Hamas. The Islamic movement has been holding out for an official Israeli announcement of a ceasefire. Hamas required that in order to be able to spin the situation and claim that it has achieved mutual deterrence. However, the Netanyahu government has refused to issue the announcement, as it has no interest in awarding Hamas cheap political victories.
Israel can call the shots since it has achieved the type of advantage that military strategists call escalation dominance. Escalation dominance has two components. The first is the ability of the stronger side to maintain such a markedly superior position over a rival, across a range of escalation scenarios, that the weak side will see further escalation as a losing bet. The second is that the stronger side can control the pace and extent of escalation.
Hamas has tried to alter this state of affairs but has thus far been unable to. In an attempt to force Israel to make concessions Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a bevy of rockets at some of the settlements near the Gaza Strip. However, the effects of the attack were limited. The iron dome system shot down most of the rockets, a couple of missiles landed within agricultural settlements causing minor property damage and others landed in open fields.
Hamas finds itself in an inferior position as it has essentially thrown all it can at Israel without risking a massive Israeli invasion and possible regime change. The demonstrations and attempts to storm the Israeli border attracted a great deal of media attention. However, they have been a practical failure. No Israelis have been killed or even injured in the clashes.
The one-sidedness of the clashes has attracted international sympathy for the Palestinians. Nevertheless, protestors are increasingly hesitant to show up. Attendance at protests reached a high point when the Embassy in Jerusalem was opened. Since then it has been in steady decline. This is probably due to a combination of the increased death toll and a sense of frustration at the lack of achievement. The Ramadan fast, which will continue until mid-June, has also taken its toll. Correspondingly, crowds are expected to continue to plummet. The demonstration gambit appears to have failed.
Other strategies Hamas adopted in the past have also been successfully countered by Israel. Years ago, the security wall built in the West Bank limited its ability to organize suicide bombings in Israeli territory. Its rockets, never particularly damaging to begin with, are increasingly ineffective in the face of the iron dome system. Finally, the IDF has proven increasingly adept at countering the underground tunnels dug from Gaza under Israeli territory.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem still has two options at its disposal which it is saving for the right situation. First, it has threatened to resume targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders. This is a tactic it has used to devastating effect in the past killing Hamas leaders such as Ahmad Yassin and Yahya Ayyash. The second has been the threat of regime change in Gaza. The Netanyahu government has leaked that if it ever launches another (there have been two so far) ground campaign against Hamas, it will remove the regime and oversee a transition of control to the Palestinian Authority. While it is unclear if this an empty threat or not, Hamas are loathe to chance it.
There is a difference of opinion within the Israeli security establishment over how to capitalize on the significant advantage Israel currently enjoys. One school of thought calls for containing Hamas and denying them political achievements in the hope that their lack of popularity will eventually loosen their grip over the Gaza Strip. This also would involve withholding humanitarian assistance to the area.
Others believe that indirect negotiations when the Islamic terror group is at its weakest will yield the best possible deal and therefore the time is right for genuine negotiations. This would involve not only talks over a sustained cessation of hostilities but also a genuine Israeli commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza and reduce the impetus of the population and Hamas to seek confrontation. The same IDF officer who boasted of the Israeli advantage also said “today is a good time to reach arrangements which will allow them (the residents of Gaza) and yield calm for a prolonged period.”
A deal, as envisioned by the military, would include a cessation of the construction of terror tunnels into Israel and incitement to terrorism in return for focused and determined humanitarian assistance. Indeed, this seems to be the majority position within the military. Will the Israeli government listen? Or will Jerusalem, yet again, miss the opportunity to translate a military victory into a diplomatic one?