Unable to kill Israelis with rockets, Hamas wants the IDF drawn deeper into Gaza

Israel’s negotiators came back from Cairo Thursday recognizing that the Islamists aren’t seeking a ceasefire; the ground offensive began soon after

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.

IDF forces seen gathering near the border with Gaza in Southern Israel on July 18, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
IDF forces seen gathering near the border with Gaza in Southern Israel on July 18, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

It is somewhat difficult to believe, but on Thursday afternoon we were all discussing reports in the foreign press that at 6 a.m. Friday a ceasefire would come into effect. Here we are, just hours later, and the IDF has launched an extensive ground operation in the Gaza Strip, with casualties on both sides, but especially among Palestinians. Dozens of rockets are still crashing into Israel.

As of this writing, no heavy battles were conducted in the areas where IDF forces chose to operate. Troops have generally ventured only a few hundred meters into the Gaza Strip, sources there say, while Hamas’s military wing combatants continue to hide and have not attempted to engage in face-to-face fighting with IDF troops. The Israeli army is focused on the tunnel openings in border areas such as Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Sajaiya and Zeitoun.

What happened during those critical hours between the Israeli delegation’s return from ceasefire talks in Cairo and the IDF’s receipt of orders to enter Gaza? It seems that Israeli officials concluded that Hamas simply wants to continue fighting. Representatives of the Islamist organization in Cairo, headed by Moussa Abu Marzouk, presented a list of demands which made it clear to the Israeli negotiators that there was simply nothing more worth discussing.

It should be noted that for Hamas, the new Egyptian ceasefire proposal being discussed Thursday seemed similar to the old one, from Tuesday, with only a slight cosmetic change: namely, first stop the firing of rockets and only then negotiate the opening the Rafah crossing. Hamas, however, wanted more. The terror organization would primarily like to see the re-release of prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal, who were once again arrested in the IDF’s recent West Bank operation to find the killers of the three Israeli teenagers. It appears that Hamas also made demands designed deliberately to sabotage the ceasefire talks, such as a request to allow Gaza Palestinians to take part in Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Hamas’s objectives have changed, even evolved, since the start of the current round of violence. It is possible that the frustration rising from the group’s inability to kill Israeli civilians via rocket fire or land attacks has prompted it to raise the bar. Last week, Hamas did not want an Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. But after its attempts to inflict harm on Israelis largely failed, it seems that the organization decided to do everything possible in order to bring about a broad IDF operation in Gaza, hoping to kill soldiers and take a toll on the Israeli side.

An IDF flare illuminating the sky above the Gaza strip on July 18, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams)
An IDF flare illuminating the sky above the Gaza strip on July 18, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The Israeli intelligence community may have made a miscalculation with regards to Hamas. Again and again, the word “frustration” was uttered by senior officers and policy makers when describing the ostensible mood in Hamas over the past week. Again and again we heard from Israeli officials that the organization was on its knees and in desperate need of a ceasefire. On the Israeli side, the assessment was that its frustration would lead Hamas to stop the rocket fire relatively quickly. This was not the situation. The frustration instead led the organization to exacerbate its attempts to carry out attacks against Israelis. When those failed, Hamas decided to escalate the violence and drag Israel into Gaza.

And Hamas cannot afford to stop the fighting now, due to the high expectations it set for itself in this conflict. If it were to halt at this point, with some 270 deaths and over 2,000 wounded, the public in Gaza would blame it for carrying out a senseless adventure and surrendering without any major achievements. Some residents of Gaza see a ceasefire now, without lifting the Israel blockade, as pushing them back to where they were before the clashes began. That is where some of the Gaza public’s pressure on Hamas to continue fighting comes from.

The Egyptians, however, understood from the start that Hamas was ready to wage war. The Hamas organization has a representative in Cairo, Abu Marzouk, but Egyptian intelligence officials believed that Khaled Mashaal, Marzouk’s boss, would hurry to Cairo to advance the signing of a ceasefire agreement. Mashaal did not bother to do so; Cairo got the message.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri leveled some unprecedented criticisms. If Hamas were to have agreed to the outline of the Egyptian ceasefire, he said, the lives of dozens of Palestinians might have been saved. He accused Qatar and Turkey of joining Hamas in order to undermine the Egyptian ceasefire offer.

Wider problems

This underlines one of the biggest problems posed to Israel in its attempts to end this conflict. Israel has found itself in a war centrally designed by Hamas to pressure Egypt to open the Rafah border crossing, while in the background a larger struggle is taking place between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority on one side, and the Muslim Brotherhood camp, headed by Qatar and Turkey, on the other.

The war in the Sunni world between Doha and Cairo is not new. Egypt does not hide its disgust with the Qatari emir and the media empire he rules — the al-Jazeera news network. Its reporters are persecuted in Cairo; some been sent to jail.

At the moment, Qatar is firing back using its empathetic coverage of Gaza as a weapon. The channel has succeeded in bringing Hamas back into the limelight of the Arab and Muslim world. From a rejected organization on the brink of collapse, Hamas is a sweetheart again.

Al-Jazeera in recent days has lost all vestiges of restraint. It has not just adopted Hamas’s terminology, but is trying to polish the inventions and distortions of the Hamas military wing for news consumption.

Time and again, the channel’s reporters in Gaza and the anchors in Doha highlight Hamas propaganda, touting the “achievements” of the terror group (including a drone over Tel Aviv, with outrageous photos from an unknown area) and lashing out against the Israeli media (including the writer of this article). On Thursday night, one of al-Jazeera’s reporters was broadcasting live from Shifa hospital in Gaza as the cameraman was showing horrifying footage of injured children.

Unfortunately, and with all due respect to social media and the smaller TV channels, al-Jazeera remains the Arab world’s number one opinion-shaper.

Following that broadcast came an interview with Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum at the entrance to the emergency room. Barhoum knows that Israel will not attack the hospital. True, Wafa hospital, east of Sajaiya, was attacked in an Israeli strike on Thursday but not before its administration was given hours’ notice to leave after it was found that Hamas was launching rockets from the location.

Barhoum and other senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials have suspiciously been “visiting” the hospital’s injured many times a day, “running into” reporters from the various Arab channels. In fact, the heads of these organizations are using the wounded as human shields.

This phenomenon is not surprising. Hamas men shot at Palestinians just because they tried to withdraw money from the ATMs in the Palestinian enclave. (Hamas closed the banks and barred access to the cash machines after July 6.) So it should shock no one that they use the wounded in hospital in such a way.

It comes as no surprise, either, that the Arab press, and much of the foreign press, do not report such behavior.

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