Truce offer may signal Hamas has reached breaking point

The terror group is singing a different tune — less decisive, less fiery. This is partly due to the Gazan public, which is reeling from the destruction

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

A statement Sunday by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accepting a 24-hour humanitarian truce marks the first indication that Hamas is starting to break. There’s no surrender and white-flag-waving, but the message is a sign of significant distress.

Contrary to what Israel has been trying to argue for 20 days, Hamas has not shown any signs of real weakness until now. The organization has continued firing rockets at Israel and has relentlessly tried to carry out attacks on Israeli soil.

But something has changed over the last few days. The group’s political leaders sound different, less decisive, less fiery. On Wednesday, politburo chief Khaled Mashaal said (from Qatar) that he would rather die than have the blockade continue, but the very next day, he changed his tune when it came to American assurances. And on Sunday, all this reached a tipping point.

Early Sunday morning, Abu Zuhri said Hamas would not agree to a humanitarian truce without the complete withdrawal of the IDF (“enemy forces”) from the Gaza Strip, the cessation of all military activity and the return of civilians to their homes.

And yet a few hours later, the same Abu Zuhri declared that “pursuant to a request by the UN, and the needs of the Palestinian people, and given the [Eid al-Fitr] holiday, Hamas has decided to agree to a humanitarian truce of 24 hours.”

What changed the organization’s mind over those few hours? Likely the pressure of Gazan public opinion.

The Gazan public is exhausted and being forced to deal with a situation that is akin to an earthquake: thousands of homes completely destroyed, thousands more damaged, and more than 1,050 people dead (including hundreds of gunmen) and 6,000 injured, according to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Health Ministry — and all this on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, a major holiday on the Muslim calendar.

Given the dire situation on the ground when Israel offered to extend Saturday’s humanitarian truce through Sunday, it’s safe to deduce that too many Palestinians did not like the organization’s initial negative reaction.

A Palestinian youth walks on debris as he inspects damages following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on July 24, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)
A Palestinian youth walks on debris as he inspects damages following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, on July 24, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohammed Abed)

The cracks in Hamas’s stance are not coincidental or surprising. It’s a process that took a few days — more or less since Israel’s massive attack on Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood.

The heavy strikes on the homes in the Hamas stronghold raised support for Hamas to a peak, but it could only go downhill from there. The group, despite its promises, did not have any extraordinary military achievements to champion amid the destruction.

One of its dramatic failures, from its point of view, was the whole affair with the supposedly kidnapped soldier Oron Shaul, who was formally declared by the IDF dead late last week.

Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose death in Gaza on July 20 was formally confirmed by the IDF on July 25 (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose death in Gaza on July 20 was formally confirmed by the IDF on July 25. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Hamas military wing had announced exactly a week ago that it had taken an Israeli hostage, a soldier, and presented his picture and his identification number. Cue festivities in Gaza and the West Bank. Hundreds poured into the streets to celebrate “the achievement.” But then Israel announced that the soldier was dead and Hamas’s “victory” quickly dissipated. The whole story, and the numerous false messages released by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades lately, are likely a sign of the dramatic, maybe even desperate, need for some concrete achievement.

All this pales besides what is going on in the Strip the last few days with respect to the damage caused to the surroundings and the Gazan public. The destruction is massive, and the public’s frustration even more so. Gazans want Hamas to stop.

True, many Gazans want to achieve the lifting of the blockade one way or another, but they understand that the changes will not be dramatic — maybe an easing of sorts at the crossings with Israel, and maybe even the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. But Gaza will not get a seaport or an airport.

It’s even doubtful whether Hamas or anyone else will help the people of Gaza rebuild their destroyed homes.

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