A day before the midnight expiration of a five-day ceasefire, Israel sent out clear messages on Sunday that it will respond massively to any type of fire from Gaza and not tolerate a long-term “war of attrition.”
“It is not clear whether there will be an agreement,” a senior diplomatic official said as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations held indirect talks in Cairo.
If no agreement is agreed upon, the official said, there are two possibilities. The first is that no cease-fire extension or agreement is reached by Monday at midnight, and Hamas renews its firing. “If that happens,” he said, “Israel’s response will be strong.”
He said an example of Israel’s likely reaction was last weekend’s breakdown of the cease-fire, when Hamas fired mortars at Israel and the IAF responded by hitting 170 terrorist targets inside Gaza.
The other possibility is that the cease-fire lapses, but the firing does not resume, in which case efforts would continue to find a longer-term arrangement, the official said.
But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers at the opening of the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting that Hamas is mistaken if it thinks it can cover its military defeat over the last month with a diplomatic achievement.
In an apparent response to Hamas’s threats to engage Israel in a long war of attrition if its demands were not met, Netanyahu said further that “if Hamas thinks that we cannot stand up to it over time, it is mistaken.”
“In the turbulent and unstable Middle East in which we live, it is not enough just to have more strength, you also need determination and patience,” he said. “Hamas knows that we are very strong, but perhaps it thinks we do not have enough determination and patience. And here it is making a big mistake as well.”
Netanyahu said that Israel is a “strong and determined” nation, whose citizens and soldiers showed “amazing resilience and fortitude” during the Gaza operation and which will stand “steadfast and united” until “quiet and security” are returned to the country’s citizens.
Netanyahu said that Hamas suffered a harsh military blow, which included the destruction of the attack-tunnel network it spent years building, the killing of “hundreds of terrorists,” the interception of thousands of rockets, and the prevention of terrorist attacks from the “land, sea, and air.”
“If Hamas thinks that by a continuation of a drizzle of rocket fire we will make concessions, it is mistaken,” Netanyahu said. “As long as quiet is not restored, Hamas will continue to take very hard blows.”
Netanyahu stressed that the Israeli delegation to the indirect talks in Cairo is working under “very clear directives” to insist on Israel’s security demands. “Only if there will be a clear answer to our security needs will we agree to any understandings,” he said.
Diplomatic sources said that one of the key messages Netanyahu conveyed during the cabinet meeting, and which he will repeat in the upcoming days, is the need for patience in the war of nerves Hamas is waging with the Israeli public.
A subtext of this message is that the Gaza operation is not yet completed, that more time is needed, and that the greater the patience and resolve of the country, the greater the chance that Israel will be able to achieve its goal of long-term security for the South.
Netanyahu briefed his ministers on the situation in Gaza, as did Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen.
One of the problems in the negotiations, it has emerged, is that the Palestinian delegation to Cairo – made up of Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad representatives – is not a united group. For instance, while the Palestinian Authority under Fatah accepted the Egyptian proposals weeks ago, this was not binding on Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
And even among Hamas, there are differences of opinion between its leader Khaled Mashaal, who sits in Qatar, and the leadership in Gaza, which is more eager to come to an agreement. According to Israel, meanwhile, Qatar should be viewed as a state sponsor of terrorism, since it is Hamas’s main financial backer.
Before the cabinet meeting, disparities between some of the key ministers became apparent, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid promoting his idea for an international conference, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett saying that Israel should halt the talks in Cairo.
Lapid, who is to travel to Germany for two days on Wednesday and promote the idea of an international conference as a vehicle for a long-term resolution to the Gaza crisis, said the outline of any agreement needed to be that there would not be a rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip without its disarmament, and there would not be a cease-fire agreement without quiet for the residents of the South.
Bennett called for an immediate end to the indirect negotiations with Hamas, saying that a situation where Israel is “biting its nails waiting for the answer of a murderous terrorist organizations must end.”
He said that Israel should immediately cease the talks, and adopt the following formula: “Yes to humanitarian aid to Gaza, no to terrorism.”
Under this formula, Israel would allow the passage of food and medicine to Gaza’s residents “without limit,” but would act “without limits” as well toward any weapons factory or terrorist tunnels found, or against any Hamas leaders.
Israel must extract a heavy price from Hamas for firing on its citizens, he said, adding that “any other arrangement that will tie our hands will bring the next war closer.”
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the most important element Israel must insist on is the demilitarization of Gaza. He said that Israel must not accede to Hamas’s demands for a seaport or airport, saying that this would be nothing more than “duty free for rockets and missiles. This would mean that if up until now we suffered from Grad and Fajr missiles from Gaza, in the future it would be Scuds.”
One official said that Hamas is pushing for a seaport because this would allow Iranian ships to dock and unload weaponry. Likewise, he said, Iran is very keen on securing access to a Mediterranean port.
In a related development, Israel agreed to lift the fishing ban it clamped on Gaza during the military operation, and will now allow fishing up to three miles from the coast.
Meanwhile, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the cease-fire talks in Cairo expressed hope that an agreement over a permanent truce with Israel would be reached in the coming hours.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah official and head of the delegation, was speaking shortly after holding talks in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence officials and other members of the Palestinian team from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“We won’t accept any weak agreement,” al-Ahmed said. “Any deal should meet the demands and goals of the Palestinian people, first and foremost halting the aggression, lifting the siege, and launching work to rebuild the Gaza Strip.”
He added that the Palestinian delegation would hold a meeting late Sunday with Egyptian intelligence officials to hear about the Israeli reply to the demands.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials reiterated their refusal to make concessions on their demands.
Izzat al-Risheq, a Hamas member of the delegation, said the Palestinians would not give up the rights of their people “who made sacrifices for the resistance.”
He said that the Palestinian delegation’s goal is to “solidify the victory of the resistance with a political victory at the indirect talks in Cairo.”