There was a point yesterday when it was possible to envision an endgame to the latest conflict in Gaza. That changed this morning, with an apparent Hamas ambush 90 minutes into a 72-hour ceasefire.
On Thursday, Hamas had accepted a 72-hour ceasefire that allowed Israeli forces to remain inside of Gaza — an erosion of a position the group had held since the conflict’s outbreak. Israel and the U.S. believed that Israel was allowed to continue destroying Hamas tunnels behind their battle lines without violating the ceasefire, meaning that Israel could advance their main war objective even with the fighting halted.
Representatives from Hamas, Israel, the PA, and the U.S. were reportedly in Cairo, primed to use an unprecedented gap in the fighting to negotiate a longer truce. But it’s possible a negotiated ceasefire wouldn’t even have been necessary: Israel could just destroy the tunnels during the 72-hour half and leave Gaza, entering into a de-facto unilateral ceasefire that would spare them from making any additional concessions to Hamas.
It seemed as if all sides were easing towards an acceptable outcome after the worst outburst in Israeli-Palestinian violence in over a decade.
All of that ended at around 9:30 AM, Gaza time. Israeli soldiers engaged in tunnel destruction activities near the Gaza-Egypt border came under attack from a cadre of fighters that reportedly included a suicide bomber. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, with another captured.
Hamas representatives claimed that the attack took place before the ceasefire went into effect. It’s also possible that not every faction in Hamas agreed to allow tunnel clearing to continue.
The U.S., which has spent considerable diplomatic capital with both the Arab states and Israel to resolve the latest round of violence — and has proven more willing than usual to condemn Israel in recent days — isn’t buying it.
In a statement released this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry placed the responsibility for breaking the ceasefire squarely on the attackers. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s attack,” the statement read, characterising the ambush as “an outrageous violation of the ceasefire negotiated over the past several days, and of the assurances given to the United States and the United Nations.”
As Israeli journalist Amir Tibon noted, every indication is that the attack was a complex, pre-planned operation. And even if it happened on the initiative of a sub-faction of Hamas — and even if it turns out that the Hamas politburo in Doha didn’t expressly order its troops to use the ceasefire as cover for the abduction of soldiers — the organisation isn’t trying to back off from the attack, with one of its top commanders confirming the soldier’s capture.
Today’s events could presage a split between Hamas’s Qatar-based leadership and Cairo-based negotiators, who seemed willing to give a sustained ceasefire a chance, and its battle-hardened Gaza contingent, who want to keep the war going. And there’s been a notable split in messaging as well, with one Hamas spokesperson telling CNN earlier this afternoon that reports of the soldier’s capture were an Israeli fabrication.
It also puts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in one of his most difficult binds yet. Israel could continue its operation as if the abduction never happened — destroying Hamas’s tunnel network, and then leaving the Strip when it’s satisfied the job’s been completed.
But the last time Hamas held an Israeli soldier captive, it barred the Red Cross from accessing him and then used him a negotiating chip in order to free hundreds of convicted terrorists from Israeli prisons. Considering the group’s cruelty to captured Israelis in the past, its steep demands for a soldier’s release, and the Israeli public’s broad support for the Gaza operation, Netanyahu would have political cover to escalate the conflict even further.
As journalist and veteran Israel-watcher Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, this is the conflict’s most dangerous moment.
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