It became clear to Israel on Tuesday that this round of fighting in Gaza can’t be concluded. Not without any achievement of note, as deterrence continues to erode, and an unhappy public.
Regardless of the upcoming election, this situation is very problematic for Israel. Although Hamas requested a ceasefire on Monday, it had no intention of offering anything in return: It wouldn’t end the nighttime border demonstrations, cease launching incendiary balloons, and it certainly wouldn’t cancel the mass protest planned for Saturday, March 30, to mark “Land Day” and the one-year anniversary of the weekly “March of Return” border protests.
Even worse, Hamas made it clear on Tuesday that, from its perspective, nothing had changed. While it sustained a few heavy punches (less than in previous rounds of fighting in November and after the March 14 rocket attack on Tel Aviv), it quickly returned to business as usual: launching balloons, setting an empty Israel Defense Forces’ position ablaze near the border and in the evening firing a rocket at Gaza-adjacent Israeli communities just in time for the nightly news broadcasts—all calculated so as not to trigger an all-out escalation on the one hand and to demonstrate which side is dictating events on the other.
In Israel, officials initially hoped to achieve “something, anything” that would justify the limited use of force. When it became obvious that Hamas wasn’t playing along, the decision was made to up the pressure from the Israeli side of the Gaza border fence as well.
Another brigade was sent to the south (in addition to the two others already deployed), more reserves were called up, and more forces were placed on alert. The entire purpose is to tell Hamas: We are ready to fight. If you cross the line, we’ll cross the line.
Israel most likely doesn’t want this to happen. Devoid a strategic goal to a comprehensive military operation, the IDF could get stuck fighting in Gaza without defined targets and objectives. The current support (political and public) will quickly be replaced by resentment, in addition to the familiar arrows of criticism at the political echelon and IDF high command. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been around long enough to know that magic solutions don’t exist. Achievements require time and the willingness to pay a price—two ingredients Israel doesn’t seem to have at the moment.
On the other hand, Israel does have its limits, and Hamas has tested them. Israel must now produce a result.
To this end, the Egyptians on Tuesday jumped back into the fray after 10 days of shunning Hamas (due to the rocket attack on Tel Aviv), resuming their role as mediators with a sense of urgency. The goal is to reinstitute the understandings the sides had come to prior to that rocket attack and put some rules in place ahead of Saturday’s demonstrations, which will be a definitive test. If the day comes to an end relatively peacefully, it will be possible to declare a return to normal. If not—and certainly if the Palestinian side sustains heavy casualties—the IDF is already deployed and ready to take action on short notice.
The ball, as they say, is currently in the diplomatic court. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat is the point man with the Egyptians and with U.N. Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov. Simultaneously, the IDF is finalizing its operational preparations. If a diplomatic formula can’t be found, developments on the ground will do the talking. In such a scenario, the sides will require nerves of steel and a lot of luck to avoid a rapid descent into all-out violence.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.