It was hardly an auspicious beginning. Just an hour before the ostensible end to 50 days of Israel-Hamas hostilities, a Gazan mortar strike on Kibbutz Nirim killed two and wounded five others, one of them seriously.
Alarms continued to sound in the South even after 7 p.m., the hour set for the beginning of what is the 12th, and, we hope, the last, ceasefire.
Hamas supporters took to the streets of the Gaza Strip to celebrate what they considered to be their victory.
There were also celebrations in Ramallah, where Palestinians praised Hamas’s military wing, Izzadin Kassam, for “defeating” the IDF.
Residents of the South were rightly apprehensive. Eshkol Regional Council head Haim Yellin said he did not trust the truce and called on residents of the South who had evacuated not to return home for now.
Assuming it is maintained, however, the cease-fire will be an important achievement for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu faces opposition within the cabinet from hawks such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who said that if the terms of the cease-fire had been presented to the cabinet, he would have voted against. Still, Netanyahu made the right choice to end the conflict now for a number of reasons.
First, Hamas agreed to stop hostilities against Israel without receiving anything in return, except for reciprocal Israeli peace. Hamas could have attained an identical “quiet in exchange for quiet” deal more than a month ago. Hundreds of Palestinian lives would have been saved and much of the destruction in the Gaza Strip would have been avoided.
Hamas’s agreement to an unconditional cease-fire also sidelined its political leader Khaled Mashaal, who had maintained an intransigent position while ensconced in Qatar, safely out of reach of IDF attacks.
True, Israel agreed to negotiate over issues such as Hamas’s demands for a seaport, an airport and the release of terrorists held in Israeli prisons. But also on the agenda are Israel’s demands for the gradual demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and better monitoring of imports into Gaza to ensure they are not used to rebuild Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure.
There will also be a push during negotiations to give the Palestinian Authority more control at the border crossings with Egypt and Israel. And the PA will, we hope, play a role in coordinating the reconstruction of Gaza.
Crucially, the entire negotiation process will be mediated by the Egyptians, who have a vested interest in weakening Hamas and strengthening the PA.
While it is true that Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians has risen vis-à-vis the PA, the terrorist organization has suffered severe blows and emerges from Operation Protective Edge severely compromised.
According to IDF reports, the military destroyed 32 terrorist tunnels, built by Hamas to carry out attacks on towns, kibbutzim and moshavim near the Gaza border. Tens of millions of dollars were invested in the construction of these tunnels. Hundreds of hours of hard labor were expended.
Hamas’s arsenal of rockets and mortar shells were reduced from about 10,000 to 2,000. Hundreds of terrorists, including several senior commanders, were killed in the fighting.
And Hamas has precious little to show for its battles with the IDF. We lost 64 soldiers and six civilians and in the fight. But Hamas’s losses were hugely greater.
By forcing Hamas to pay a tremendous price for entering and perpetuating the 50-day war, Israel has created major deterrence against future attacks.
It is now important for Israel, Egypt, the US and other countries interested in seeing quiet restored to the Gaza Strip to take advantage of Hamas’s weakened position.
Ultimately, only the demilitarization of Gaza will lead to quiet. Only demilitarization will facilitate the removal of the blockade, the reconstruction of the Strip and the betterment of Palestinian lives.
But only through a concerted international effort will demilitarization be achieved. Hamas will never willingly give up its aspirations to terrorize and eventually destroy Israel.
In 2005, after Israel evacuated its soldiers and almost 8,000 Jewish settlers living in Gaza, Palestinians could have chosen the path of peace and focused on improving their lives and turning the Strip into a thriving, autonomous region. Unfortunately, they did not. Perhaps, after 50 days of war another opportunity has been created.