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Analysis: Hamas-Israel long-term ceasefire not in range

Israeli air strikes target positions in Gaza, August 9 2018
Israel is signaling to Hamas that it can be toppled without the need for a full-scale ground operation

In Israel, both in the political echelon and in the security establishment, it is estimated that the "big deal" with Hamas will not be in the near future.

The five-year hudna ("ceasefire" in Arabic), which has been discussed in recent weeks by the Arab and Western media, is not even close to being reached by the Egyptian mediators and the UN envoy, and the detailed reports about it were nothing more than psychological warfare on the part of the mediators and Hamas to create a facade that it is ready for a long-term, stable peace if all of its demands are met, without any concessions on its part.

It is now clear, they say in Jerusalem and in the army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, that this arrangement cannot be implemented for many reasons, including due to opposition from the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas. This resistance also explains why the Arab states are not getting into the thick of it and helping to achieve calm.

At the same time, Jerusalem is not prepared to accept the pattern of "small confrontations" that has become the norm with Hamas since the end of March. Israel is not prepared for Hamas to continue harassing the residents of the western Negev, especially those on the Gaza perimeter, every week or two - forcing them into shelters, disrupting daily life and incinerating fields.

Israel has apparently decided that it will not allow Hamas to continue carrying out its "deterrence equation" that the organization's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has been trying to implement in recent months, according to which any IDF fire in response to a provocation by Hamas would be met with snipers, rockets and mortar shells fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel will also not allow Hamas to initiate escalation and then quell it by using the Egyptian mediators and the UN envoy whenever the escalation harms them.

On the other hand, Israel’s political echelon and defense establishment now agree that there is still no need to embark on a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, which would include ground artillery, infantry and engineering forces deep into the Palestinian enclave. There is still no intention of conquering the Gaza Strip, taking control of it and destroying the Hamas government, as far as IDF has trained and is prepared to operate within a few days.

Controlled Escalation

Despite the reports of a possible cease-fire between the sides, the IDF believes it has combat strategies, artillery capabilities, and other tools available that will enable it to defeat Hamas in the strip and severely damage its military capacity to the point where it seeks to return to the understandings that ended Operation Protective in August 2014. These understandings, which included many concessions to the Palestinians in return for a stable calm respected by Hamas, led to four years of quiet and prosperity in the western Negev and Gaza area, and eased the plight of Gaza residents.

This calm was finally broken not because of Israel, but because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to stop paying salaries to PA employees in Gaza and to stop transferring money to the strip to pay for the electricity and water it receives from Israel.

But now, in Israel, it is believed that these understandings and calm can be restored by means of a controlled escalation carried out by IDF not only from the air but also on the ground. The first signal to Gazans of the beginning of the escalation came on Thursday when the air force destroyed a building on the first floor of Hamas' internal security offices in the Palestinian enclave.

Residents were warned in advance and were asked to evacuate the building before a number of missiles were fired. The hint was meant to remind Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and all armed groups in Gaza, of the end of Operation Protective Edge, in which the IDF dropped high-rise buildings in the strip one after the other until Hamas had enough and requested a ceasefire.

Many of these buildings have not been restored to this day. The building that the IDF destroyed in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza was the "yellow card." The IDF planned and executed, with the approval of the political echelon, more harrowing attacks until Hamas agrees to return to the Operation Protective Edge understandings. Israel’s government and defense establishment want nothing beyond those understandings, but no less.

After we return to the Protective Edge understandings and achieve a stable calm, it will be possible to move to direct and indirect negotiations in which Hamas, the Egyptians, the UN envoy, Qatar, Turkey, the Arab countries and of course Israel, will participate in a more full-scale rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip and improvement in its economic situation. Then the return of Israeli fallen soldiers and prisoners held by Hamas will also be addressed.

Then, according to reliable sources, Israel will also be able to execute targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders in Gaza. In other words, Israel is now signaling to Hamas that it is capable of toppling its regime not by full, permanent occupation of the Gaza Strip, but through the surgical operations it chooses as part of the 'escalation steps' that the IDF will undertake in the near future.

From conversations with political and military sources, it can be understood that Israel is giving Hamas another chance this time to absorb the message and return to the conditions at the end of Protective Edge that began a four-year lull.

If Hamas continues to provoke Israel, given that Israel does not want to engage in a ground military operation in Gaza, it may be surprised to see that since Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has accumulated intelligence and operational capabilities and technologies that enable it to achieve its objectives in the Gaza Strip without a ground operation. The Chief of General Staff, Gadi Eizenkot, shared some of these options with the subcommittee of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose members were convinced of their capability. Hamas, therefore, should not force Israel to pull a “red card" against it, and should instead reconsider its approach.

Ron Ben-Yishai is a senior Israeli defense analyst. This article is published courtesy of Ynet.

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