As of Thursday afternoon, on the third day of Operation Protective Edge, the end of this conflict was nowhere in sight. Hamas had fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, reaching into distant and unexpected areas such as Dimona, Mitzpe Ramon, and Zichron Yaakov. The attacks, however, had not brought any loss of Israeli life.
The Israeli Air Force, for its part, had bombed hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip, without causing substantial damage to Hamas’s rocket stockpiles or command structure.
Jerusalem was emphasizing that we are at the beginning of a long campaign, while Hamas was reiterating the same conditions for a ceasefire that it set on Tuesday. It is demanding that Israel free 56 prisoners who had been released under the Gilad Shalit exchange deal in 2011 and who were re-apprehended in IDF raids on West Bank cities following the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers on June 12.
The release of these prisoners has become the central issue for Hamas — the escape route from the corner it has painted itself into — as is evident in the hints to this effect by its political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, statements by its military wing (Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades), and the comments of a senior Hamas official who spoke with The Times of Israel earlier Thursday.
This may point to an interesting phenomenon. The demand to free the prisoners was formally announced for the first time at a press conference Tuesday by Hamas military wing spokesman Abu Ubaidah, and not by the Hamas political leadership. Imagine if the IDF Spokesperson’s Office organized a press conference and set its own terms for an Israeli ceasefire. In other words, the tail is wagging the dog in Gaza.
Hamas is being run right now not by the Gaza political leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh or Mahmoud al-Zahar, but by the commanders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — men like Marwan Issa, Mohammed Def, Raed al-Attar, and Yahya Snawar. They largely initiated the escalation, and they are the ones now determining how it plays out.
Thus far, Hamas’s military wing has managed to control and direct the rocket fire with remarkable efficiency. It is evident that much thought has gone into planning a system that would enable protracted, long-range shooting, even under heavy Israeli air fire. Members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades have simultaneously attempted infiltrations from the sea — what it would consider “quality” acts of terrorism — against Israeli targets at Zikim; thus far, they have failed to produce the desired result.
Israel’s problem is that the IDF has not yet marked any exceptional achievements in its offensive, either. The heads of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are hiding in tunnels beneath the Strip, and even among regular operatives there have not been many casualties.
Which raises another problem. The majority of the 76 people killed (at time of writing) in Gaza since the beginning of the operation were civilians, albeit many of them relatives of terrorists whose homes were bombed by the Israeli Air Force. The IDF issues a warning message to terrorists, urging them to evacuate their homes before it attacks. Some Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, however, have decided to barricade themselves in their homes along with their families, in spite of the warnings, and the price, accordingly, has been many casualties, women and children among them.
This Israeli approach — warning the targets about impending IAF strikes — exposes yet another problem. It suggests that the defense establishment in Israel has no clear, qualitative targets, and is settling for the homes of terrorists, even if they’re absent.
This may sound cynical, but the only political threat posed to Hamas in Gaza right now comes from members of the rival Islamic Jihad. The latter is trying to beat Hamas in the competition over who will shoot more and fire farther into Israel. Islamic Jihad stole the show when it managed to launch a rocket Wednesday at Tel Aviv, beating Hamas to the task by several hours. Hamas then one-upped Hamas by firing still farther north.
Gazans are watching this violent competition play out with some astonishment. Islamic Jihad is busy launching rockets into Israel, often from the same sites where Hamas operatives are trying to do the same, and the main focus of both groups is who can fire first.