Tuesday was a potential turning point in the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas.
With Hamas’ rejection of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now pulled between his apparent desire for an off-ramp and the basic need to retain Israeli deterrence in the face of an intensifying rocket bombardment.
As if to accentuate the stark and immediate nature of the choice before him, Netanyahu fired one of the most hawkish members of his cabinet today for criticising the prime minister over his allegedly passive policy in Gaza, dismissing a deputy defence minister that journalist Benjamin Birnbaum once described as “Israel’s Ted Cruz.”
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that’s been launching scores of rockets at Israel every day for the past week, faces an equally tense state of play.
Hamas is in as much of a double-bind as Netanyahu: rejecting a ceasefire proves that the organisation is the more recalcitrant of the two parties. It suggests that Hamas is inviting a larger Israeli response out of a deliberate policy of provocation — or perhaps because the most radical and heavily-armed wing of the organisation is outside of the control of Hamas’ more pragmatic leadership.
Accepting the ceasefire would have put a stop to hostilities without extracting any of the group’s publicly stated demands. If Hamas keeps fighting, it runs the risk of further isolation or of losing the support of the Gazans it rules over. If Hamas stops fighting it will have provoked a war without gaining much of anything in return.
This afternoon Hamas put out an updated list of demands for a cessation of hostilities. Some, like the extension of the Israeli-permitted fishing zone around Gaza to 10 KM, are actually fairly modest and imply a realisation that Israel will maintain control over whatever enters and leaves Gaza as long as groups within the coastal strip remain a security threat. And Hamas is apparently only demanding the release of prisoners arrested in June of 2014 in the wake of Hamas operatives’ abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
Others demands are more quixotic and perhaps even intentionally provocative. Hamas wants Egypt to effectively surrender control of the Rafah border crossing to “friendly Arab states” — a group that would likely include Qatar, one of Egypt’s foremost geopolitical rivals. It wants “international observers” to patrol the Israeli-Gaza border; Israel is unlikely to give Hamas an added layer of strategic insulation so long as it traffics long-range missiles and remains committed to Israel’s destruction.
Whether these demands are realistic or not — and whether or not Hamas sticks by them as events develop — the scuttled Egyptian-backed truce at least offered a small and quickly fleeting window for deescalation. And with the first Israeli death of the conflict Tuesday, it’s unclear if there will be another one in the coming days.
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