This round of Israel-Hamas conflict is entering a critical day. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State John Kerry might announce Tuesday a long-term humanitarian ceasefire, accompanied by a call to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. And it appears that Israel and Hamas, at this stage, are both thirsting for a halt to the fighting. Both recognize that if a ceasefire doesn’t come into force on Tuesday, they could be in for weeks of bloody battles.
Media reports Monday night indicated that Hamas might be inclined to accept terms based on the original Egyptian proposal — for an unconditional end to fighting — with the minor improvement of a call to lift the siege. This would mean that Hamas would abandon its demands that any ceasefire deal provide for the opening of the Rafah border crossing, and the release of prisoners including those recently rearrested from the Shalit deal.
If there has been a change in the Hamas position — and let’s emphasize the “if,” because there has been no official announcement at the time of writing — it came during Monday’s meeting between Abbas and Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal. It’s not clear what caused the shift, if indeed there was one. Perhaps Hamas feels a significant achievement in the killing of 25 soldiers, topped by its ongoing assertion to have kidnapped a member of the IDF (dead or alive). That, plus its recognition of the destruction wrought in Shejaiya and elsewhere in Gaza, the hundreds of dead, and the approach of Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, might have prompted a change of stance.
And the Israeli side? Israel, too, might accept the ceasefire formula. There is currently no evidence of any other initiative on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, most probably because the demands Hamas is making mostly relate to Egypt, not to Israel. Still, Netanyahu could be showing a little more creativity and desire to reach a comprehensive political solution, in a manner that would boost Israel’s international standing to at least some degree. No harm would have been done had Netanyahu stated that Israel is ready to open the crossings between Gaza and Israel, and to build a seaport and an airport under international supervision, as long as Hamas disarms and allows the Abbas-headed Palestinian Authority to manage the border crossings. Hamas would probably not have agreed to such a proposal, which in turn would have helped Israel’s image abroad — more of a peacemaker, less a state perceived to be indiscriminately shelling residential neighborhoods.
With 60 people killed, 400 more injured and dozens of buildings razed to the ground during the IDF operation overnight Saturday-Sunday, the north Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiya seems now to be a Palestinian version of southern Beirut’s largely Shiite Dahiya quarter, which was severely damaged during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
While the level of destruction in Shejaiya wasn’t of the same magnitude as was seen in the Jenin refugee camp during operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002, the images broadcast on Arab media throughout a several hour long truce with Hamas on Sunday, granted by Israel in order to allow for the evacuation of casualties at the site, were reminiscent of a disaster zone.
The extent of the damage and death in the Gaza neighborhood created an effect similar to the one experienced during the IDF bombing of the Beirut quarter where Hezbollah holds sway. If and when this current round of violence comes to an end, the suffering caused to the people of Shejaiya and especially to the many families whose children were killed, might make Hamas think twice before resuming attacks against Israel from the Strip. Hamas will bear the scar of Shejaiya, similar to the scars of the Dahiya quarter and the Jenin refugee camp, for some years to come.
For now, though, Hamas is in a celebratory mood. Due to the high death toll among IDF soldiers on the one hand, and the devastating blow to the Palestinian civilian population on the other, Hamas sees itself as the victor. The military wing’s claim to have abducted a soldier, though rejected by the army, nevertheless prompted hundreds of Palestinians to take to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank in celebration. Despite the terrible events in Shejaiya, Hamas is at one of its highest points, both politically and publicly.
The combination of ruthless fighting against the IDF, resulting in 13 deaths among the ranks of the “Zionists” overnight Saturday-Sunday, more Sunday, and the perpetuated myth of a massacre in Shejaiya, have brought the organization an unprecedented degree of support among the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. However, the myth of that “massacre” has also created panic among the Gazan public.
The driving emotion among the residents of Gaza is one of mass hysteria. This means that during the next operation in Shejaiya, or in any other neighborhood for that matter, the IDF will likely encounter far fewer civilians. The majority of Gaza residents in combat zones — Shejaiya or elsewhere — will from now on run from their homes and flee for their lives — heeding the IDF’s warnings to bolt, not Hamas’s calls to stay.
Another problem with which Hamas will have to contend is the public’s short memory. Without what are seen as real achievements at the conclusion of this war, the public support will wane and Gazan respect for the terror organization will evaporate.
In the days after operation Pillar of Defense came to a end in November 2012, half a million people came out to greet the visiting Mashaal, and congratulate him for victory in Gaza. Only a few weeks later, after Gazans realized that nothing had actually changed, over half a million celebrated the anniversary of Fatah, Hamas’s political rival.
And this is what will determine whether the conflict is perceived as a Hamas victory or defeat. If there is no genuinely significant achievement, Hamas will pay the price in Gazan public support.
We may know Tuesday whether Hamas is registering a glorious episode in its history, or will be perceived as having gotten 600 people killed for nothing.