Briefly, on Saturday morning, it had seemed that this round of the Israel-Hamas conflict might be drawing to its close. Rocket fire had tailed off for a few hours, and Hebrew media were reporting on the draft of an ostensible Egyptian ceasefire proposal.
But by Saturday evening, after heavy barrages of Hamas rocket fire on Jerusalem and across central Israel, it was clear that the conflict was emphatically still in full swing. The rocket attacks on multiple targets in southern and central Israel weren’t stopping, and Israeli air strikes in Gaza, including on the homes of members of the Hamas political leadership, had left a death toll of some 130.
What changed on Saturday night was a Hamas “show”. At 8pm, in an announcement timed to coincide with Israel’s main nightly news broadcasts, it boasted that, at 9, it would fire barrages of a new rocket, the J80 (the Al-Jabari, named for its terror chief, Ahmed Jabari, killed by Israel at the start of 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense) at Tel Aviv. And, just a few minutes after the promised hour, the rockets indeed rained in.
The barrage left no injuries, but false reports and rumors to the effect that they had caused Israeli casualties were sufficient to trigger scenes of celebration in Jabaliya refugee camp. The Al-Jazeera TV station joined in the festivities, dismally, reporting the rocket assault as an extraordinary achievement in the war against Israel.
The Egyptian ceasefire proposal, meanwhile, sounds rather like a collection of old ideas that were being circulated in the days before Operation Protective Edge, and were firmly rejected then by Hamas — ideas such as “quiet for quiet,” an easing of the closure at the Rafiah border crossing, and the entry of more building supplies from Israel into Gaza. Hamas said no to those proposals. It wanted the release of 56 prisoners freed in the Shalit exchange of 2011 who were arrested by Israel during the (ongoing) hunt for the killers of the three Israeli teenagers abducted last month. And Israel said no to that.
There’s a consensus among all those who have been in contact with Hamas of late — Israelis (there are some), Egyptians, Europeans and Palestinians (emissaries of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas): Gaza’s Islamist leadership doesn’t want a ceasefire. A senior PA official who has been in contact with Hamas and Gaza told this reporter on Saturday: “There’s nothing to discuss with them.” And an Egyptian source dismissed the notion of an imminent Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Egyptian efforts were continuing, he said, but they were getting nowhere.
Israel’s security establishment was also emphasizing that the conflict is far from over.
Meanwhile, the toll of the dead in Gaza was rising, with many of the casualties civilians. The military and the political leadership of Hamas is still hiding out in tunnels and has barely been harmed. Nidal al-Malash, a nephew of former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, was killed Saturday in an air strike on Gaza’s Sheikh Radwan district, but his uncle is just fine.
Israeli officials insist that Hamas is frustrated by its inability to radically disrupt Israelis’ routine and to cause large numbers of Israeli casualties. But the death and injury of Gaza civilians who are not connected to the fighting is boosting support for Hamas among the Gaza public, and the Islamists’ popularity is on the rise in the West Bank and the rest of the Arab world too.
For the Palestinian and Arab public, the ability of a little Palestinian organization to attack Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona proves its heroic determination in the face of “the Zionists.” Hamas is not indicating any desperation to surrender, or even to halt the conflict. And thus the road to an Israeli ground incursion is shortening.
And yet, despite the rising support for Hamas on the Palestinian and Arab street, Abbas continues to surprise and show leadership. On Friday night, the second Friday of Ramadan, amid news of dozens of Gaza fatalities, the PA president gave an interview to the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV station and did not hesitate to criticize Hamas for the ongoing escalation. Hamas’s demands, said Abbas — who is maintaining contacts with the Islamist group — “are exaggerated and unnecessary.”
He added that “it is the Palestinians who are losing with every minute that this war continues” and that an urgent halt to the fire was vital, with no preconditions. He offered “condolences to the families of the martyrs in Gaza who are fuel to those who trade in war. I oppose these traders, on both sides.”
Unsurprisingly, those comments prompted a wave of harsh criticism from Hamas against Abbas. It could be, however, that some on the Israeli side are listening. And that, once this operation is over, they may consider that there is, in fact, someone to talk to.