What began on June 12 at the junction outside Alon Shvut, in the Etzion bloc of the West Bank, with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers, may have concluded at the nearby settlement of Alon Shvut, where the last rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza — minutes before the ceasefire came into force on Tuesday morning — hit the earth.
One long line connects that abduction-murder with the descent into conflict that Hamas deliberately instigated against Israel from Gaza. The Islamist organization wanted to escalate the situation against Israel, and to a certain extent, against the Palestinian Authority, in order to boost its standing among the Palestinian and wider Arab public and to ensure the economic survival of its rule in Gaza.
It is of course too early to determine whether the current ceasefire will prove longer-lasting than its predecessors. Predictably, in the last few minutes before 8 a.m., Hamas launched rocket salvos in numerous directions. One rocket landed in the Palestinian city of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. Apparently nothing had changed.
Nonetheless, the announcement of a ceasefire by the Middle East’s responsible adult, Egypt — this time in consultation with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, rather than unilaterally — may indicate a greater likelihood of success. The Egyptians this time did one thing differently from three weeks ago, when their ceasefire proposal was rejected by Hamas — they brought Hamas representatives to Cairo, and gave the rulers of Gaza the sense that Cairo was speaking to them rather than spitting in their faces. Furthermore, the fact that all Palestinian factions accepted the Egyptian framework, and abandoned the Qatar-Turkey channel, marks a significant victory for Egypt in the struggle for regional primacy, and to some extent makes it more difficult for Hamas to evade ending the conflict.
The critical question for Hamas surrounds what it will manage to achieve in the indirect negotiations soon to get underway in Cairo between the Israeli delegation and the Palestinian delegation (with its Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives). The very fact that Hamas accepted the Egyptian umbrella and the Cairo formula — providing for an immediate cessation of hostilities, and negotiations only after that — marked a humiliating defeat of sorts. For almost three weeks Hamas had insistently rejected the proposal for an unconditional ceasefire with its demands to be addressed only afterwards. But on Monday night, it changed course.
That shift signals the difficult position in which Hamas now finds itself. It still has plenty of rockets, and its leadership is unharmed. But its military infrastructure is severely damaged. And worse, the civilian infrastructure of Gaza is devastated. Thousands of homes have been completely destroyed, and tens of thousands partly destroyed. There are over 1,800 people dead — Israel says hundreds of them are Hamas fighters — and more than 9,500 injured. If, after all that, the negotiations in Egypt end without Hamas managing a significant achievement related to the lifting of the blockade, it would be a grave blow to the organization’s standing in Palestinian public opinion.
Another aspect that will determine Hamas’s status concerns its capacity to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip. The fact is, however, that no Palestinian hierarchy — neither the PA nor Hamas — could likely manage this project. The damage done to Gaza stands in the billions of dollars, and Hamas certainly cannot fix it alone. The PA has already initiated an international gathering to deal with rehabilitation. The PA government — the joint Fatah-Hamas-backed government with which Israel refused to cooperate — is promising to try to renew electricity and water supplies. But the rebuilding process will take years. The thousands upon thousands of residents of Shejaiya, Beit Hanoun and other areas, who will have to live in tents in the interim, are unlikely to step up their support for Hamas, or for the PA, without new housing.
Unless there is dramatic and immediate rebuilding and rehabilitation of Gaza, indeed, those who profit most from the widespread devastation are unfortunately likely to be organizations still more extreme. Already active active in Gaza, these groups will find fertile ground to recruit. Small groups and factions affiliated with al-Qaeda, which make Hamas look like a Boy Scout movement, are also likely to try to renew their fire on Israel in the next few days, mainly in order to embarrass Hamas.
Which raises the question of what Israel would then do. Will it renew its campaign in Gaza, or return to the old policy after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which regarded Hamas’s control of the Strip as a security interest and protective force for the State of Israel?