The latest news out of Gaza does not bode well for Israel: mounting IDF casualties in battles with Hamas men on the ground in the eastern Strip and, on the other hand, dozens of Palestinian dead — civilians as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen — mostly in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.
Video uploaded to the internet in recent hours includes horrific footage of bodies strewn in the streets, and greatly exaggerated claims are emerging of a massacre as horrendous as the one in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Thousands of the neighborhood’s residents have fled to seek refuge in UNRWA schools and in hospitals.
The difficult pictures will likely turn the tide of international public opinion, which has so far been relatively sympathetic toward Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which has refused an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, seems far from breaking. On the contrary, the organization’s top brass is confident and determined to continue fighting in order to achieve a strategic diplomatic coup vis-a-vis its international standing and the status of the Gaza Strip. This state of mind has led Hamas leaders to put forth an unrealistic set of demands that Israel won’t agree to – neither this week nor in the coming months.
The big difference between this morning and the first two weeks of the war is that this morning Hamas can boast of its first significant “achievement”: Operatives in its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades have succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties among Israeli soldiers. At the same time, the organization is carrying on its efforts to attack Israelis via tunnels and with rocket fire. The IDF has shown since the onset of the conflict that it has powerful means to deal with the tunnel challenge, but it can’t shut down the rocket fire. It also cannot neutralize the threat of anti-tank munitions: Hamas, making use of advanced Kornet missiles, has succeeded in inflicting heavy losses among IDF soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The question, then, is whether Hamas’s achievements could be the very thing that will prompt it to change its tack and seek a ceasefire. The problem, however, is that footage of multiple civilian casualties in Shejaiya only plays into Hamas’s hands and makes it stronger. The organization wants to see many civilian casualties in order to bring about strong international criticism of Israel and pressure from Cairo on Jerusalem to accede to Hamas’s demands. Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas political leader, has been sitting tight in Qatar, refusing even to accept an Egyptian invitation to fly to Cairo to discuss a truce. Mashaal knows full well that Hamas’s political leaders and military capabilities have barely been damaged by the Israeli campaign; it can still fire rockets at Israeli population centers, and the network of bunkers dug under Gaza enable it to target a growing number of IDF soldiers.
Mashaal is set to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday in Doha. Abbas will likely entreat him to accept an Egyptian proposal and hold his fire. But in all likelihood, Mashaal, certain that victory is in his grasp, will refuse.