Wednesday’s speech by the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, in Qatar, did not constitute good news. One way or another Mashaal made clear that the fighting is likely to continue for a considerable time. The stance he presented, which is accepted by all wings of Hamas — military and political, in Gaza and overseas — is that there will be no ceasefire without the full lifting of the blockade on the Strip.
This reality isn’t easy for Israel to deal with. Among a fair proportion of Israel’s political and security leadership, the hope, even the assumption, has been that Hamas is about to halt its fire, surrender, or moderate its demands. This does not reflect the reality. Hamas is adamant that it will continue to fight until Egypt and Israel accept its demands, in part because the Gaza public insists upon it. Given the very heavy price paid by Gaza, residents insist on real change and not a return to the status quo.
Mashaal set out a notably tough negotiating position, but the simple fact is that Hamas has not been sufficiently damaged and does not feel its future is existentially threatened, and therefore is not seeking compromise, much less surrender. Its military and political command echelons are unharmed, its gunmen are killing IDF soldiers, and its rocket capabilities have been slightly weakened but not destroyed.
Therefore the Israeli public needs to internalize that this operation may continue for a long while yet. The army will continue its activities in the coming days, until the last of the tunnels is dealt with. The question is what will happen the day after that.
Israel will have to choose between some difficult options. One is to hold to its current positions a few kilometers into the Strip, without deepening the incursion. But treading water in this way would expose the troops to attacks without any further gains and thus is unlikely to appeal to anybody in the political or military echelons.
Two other options might be more likely. The first is to widen the ground offensive in order to defeat Hamas or force its surrender. The problem is that this would likely cause the deaths of dozens more soldiers, and a lengthy, bloody stay in the Strip, with the international community turning against Israel and the Israeli public consensus cracking. The second is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, with a declaration of a cessation of hostilities, similar to that which brought an end to Operation Cast Lead in 2009. This would be carried out in the hope that Hamas would understand the need to stop its fire or pay a still-heavier price.
At present, this looks like the likely, sane option. There’s just one problem: It’s not at all clear that Hamas would agree to it. Hamas is likely to continue its rocket fire, even after an IDF withdrawal, and to try to draw Israel into a war of attrition. Furthermore, this option would not solve anything in the long term. Hamas would return to tunnel building and rearm with longer-range rockets, likely to cause more harm to Israel in the next round of conflict.
Still, this option may be adopted in the next few days, integrated into an announcement of a “humanitarian ceasefire.” In other words, once the operation against the tunnels is finished — perhaps in two or three days — Israel may well announce an end to the ground offensive and time a humanitarian ceasefire announcement for the eve of Eid al-Fitr at the beginning of next week. Hamas might restart its rocket fire days later. We shall see.
When Mashaal was asked on Wednesday night about the possibility of Israel announcing a unilateral ceasefire, he didn’t rule this out, saying, “We’ll judge things at the appropriate time.”
Mashaal seemed very self-confident, declaring that it was Israel that was now under siege (given the since-lifted international flight bans), not Gaza. But this was leadership from afar. He’s in Qatar, not Gaza. “We’re prepared to die and not just to get the siege lifted,” he said, as though he was speaking from a tunnel in Shejaiya and not a luxury hotel in Doha. He dismissed the idea of Hamas disarming and rejected Egypt’s longstanding proposal of a ceasefire now and negotiations later. Hamas would welcome a humanitarian ceasefire, he said, but not the kind that was being proposed. Don’t think that a short-term humanitarian halt to hostilities can be turned into something more permanent, he indicated.
Mashaal made one more interesting point that relates to the US. He claimed that Secretary of State John Kerry called his friends in Qatar and Turkey at the start of the conflict and asked them to broker a ceasefire. If this is true, it’s nothing less than a scandal because it would mean Kerry had cut out the ground from beneath the Egyptian ceasefire proposal.
We stand now with Israel and Hamas both insistent that they are winning and that the enemy is days, if not hours, away from breaking. That’s the feeling among Gazans and among Israelis, but the reality is harsher, more complex and more problematic: On both sides there is sufficient will, motivation, and capacity to keep fighting, and not enough to stop.