Talk of an imminent game-changing development — either an immediate ceasefire or an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza — dominated the sixth day of Operation Pillar of Defense, but late into Monday night there was only more of the same: Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel, and Israeli air strikes on Hamas missile launch sites, key personnel and terror infrastructure. Both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders reiterated that they would fight on, and would only agree to a ceasefire if all their respective conditions were met.
International mediation efforts — by Egypt, the United Nations and other players — were being conducted behind the scenes, but without a definitive result.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly indicated that if Hamas did not halt its rocket attacks by Tuesday, he would order a ground offensive, and several of his ministers underlined that position. Hamas political bureau chief said at a press conference in Cairo that he did not seek an escalation but that Hamas was ready to fight a ground offensive if it unfolded.
But some in the government — notably including ministers from Shas — were cautioning against a ground offensive, and Netanyahu was well aware that sending in troops would likely lead to a rise in casualties on both sides, and much-increased international pressure for a rapid ceasefire.
“If what has been done up to now will not return quiet to the South, we have no choice but to expand the operation,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated Monday afternoon. “The residents of the South — and in recent days not only the South — cannot live under a constant barrage of missiles and rockets. This is an intolerable situation.”
Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, on the other hand, advised the government against a ground invasion. Israel could achieve its objectives from the air and should continue with surgical air strikes, he said on Channel 2.
Channel 2’s diplomatic correspondent, Udi Segal, reported on Monday night that Egypt and the US had asked Israel not to launch a ground invasion during the next 24 hours, while officials in Jerusalem stated Hamas must hold all fire on Israel before they’d consider a possible ceasefire. Only after no more rockets are fired will Jerusalem consider discussing a full-fledged ceasefire, Segal reported.
Israeli officials hesitated to discuss their demand for a ceasefire in detail. “I don’t know if these talks [in Cairo] will succeed or not and whether we might in the end have to escalate and launch a ground incursion,” an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel on Monday evening. “But a ceasefire is not imminent,” he added.
“The goal of our operation is to bring about a new reality in the South. That’s the goal: that the people there no longer have to live in fear. We are currently conducting a military campaign that could well be expanded,” this official said.
‘If Israel’s terms for a ceasefire are agreed upon, then there can be an end of the fighting. If not, I think a ground operation is inevitable’
“You can’t continue with this operation [Pillar of Defense] forever, you have to stop somewhere. The question is how and where,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Emanuel Sakal, a former head of the IDF Ground Forces Command, told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “If Israel’s terms for a ceasefire are agreed upon, then there can be an end of the fighting. If not, I think a ground operation is inevitable.”
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, all sides involved in drafting a ceasefire agreement — Hamas, Israel, the US, Egypt, and a special team of envoys sent to the Middle East by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — will be ready to publish their results by Tuesday, with Ban shuttling by then between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo. “There is a kind of understanding that the head of the UN will give his backing to a ceasefire and an agreement between the sides regarding their future engagement,” the paper claimed.
What are the two sides’ demands for a ceasefire?
According to Egyptian sources, which leaked some or all of the purported Israeli and Hamas truce demands in the course of Monday, Hamas wants all border crossings to and from Gaza opened and kept open 24 hours a day, an end to Israeli targeted strikes on its leaders and to allow all armed groups in Gaza keep their weapons.
“We will not accept a ceasefire until the occupation (Israel) meets our conditions,” Hamas official Izzat Rishaq, who is involved in Egyptian-mediated efforts to achieve a truce, told the Associated Press.
The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted a senior Islamic Jihad official as setting out similar terms, saying the group would agree to a truce if the IDF stopped air attacks on Gaza and halted assassinations of its leadership, and if Israel eased crossings between the Israel and Gaza.
Jerusalem, for its part, insists that a ceasefire agreement must include the disarming of all terror groups stationed in Gaza, as well a longterm halting of all attacks on Israeli citizens.
“The bottom line is that we want an end of the rocket fire,” a spokesman of the Strategic Affairs ministry told The Times of Israel.
Some of these demands are no-brainers for both sides. Hamas will never agree to be disarmed. And Israel will not lift its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, at least not for the foreseeable future, fearing that large amounts of arms could then be shipped in from Iran and other countries.
However, it is possible that Israel would agree for Egypt to open its Rafah terminal to Gaza, in exchange for a long-term ceasefire and Egyptian security guarantees, the director-general of Strategic Affairs Ministry, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, told The Times of Israel. “What happens on the Egypt-Gaza border is not Israel’s affair,” he said.
Another government official close to Netanyahu, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that since Israel’s main objective is stop rocket fire on Israeli citizens, any agreement that could achieve that would be seriously considered by Israel.
“If we come out of this and the people of the South no longer have to live in fear, that’s a success for us. This success can be achieved either way — by a ground operation or by a ceasefire agreement,” the official said.
According to Bar-Ilan University professor Shmuel Sandler, who specializes in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is actually in Israel’s interest to have Egypt open its border with Gaza. In such a scenario, Cairo would have to control the influx of weapons into the strip because of the security guarantees it would have given to Israel.
“While the leadership there now belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, they have been acting rationally so far. They seem to put national interests over religious interests,” Sandler said. “Of course Hamas would continue to bring in ammunition, the question is just how much. The Egyptians also don’t have an interest in Hamas having too much ammunition.”
Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari also said that a truce could involve Egypt opening the Rafah terminal with Gaza for passenger traffic and trade.
“This could mean that Gaza would get its fuel and other commodities from Egypt, while Israel would continue to supply electricity. Egyptian ports could begin to handle the flow of goods in and out of Gaza, and Israel would gradually phase out the commercial activities that pass through the six terminals it now operates into Gaza,” Yaari wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Such a move would effectively end Israel’s economic responsibility over Gaza and hand it to the Muslim Brotherhood, which already sees itself as a patron of Hamas and would be in favor of such an arrangement, he argued. “And Hamas is already pleading for this type of arrangement, seeking to end its economic dependence on Israeli goodwill.”