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Much like Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah in 2006, Hamas's Damascus-based leader Khaled Mashaal has been talking a good war over the past two weeks. He has been rejecting any notion of a cease-fire that doesn't start with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and an opening of the border crossings. And he has issued a stream of denunciations of Israel, calls for wider Arab mobilization and claims of dramatic successes on the battlefield.
"The enemy has failed," Mashaal declared on Saturday, in the latest such installment. "The enemy is hiding its true losses."
According to Israel's intelligence chiefs, briefing ministers on Sunday, however, Mashaal doesn't know what he's talking about. On Sunday night, representatives of Hamas from Gaza, who do know the true picture, traveled from Cairo, where they had been discussing cease-fire terms, to Damascus, to fill in the gaps in Mashaal's knowledge.
Israeli ministers were told on Sunday that at least some of Hamas's leaders in Gaza are desperate for a cease-fire, on almost any terms. Hamas has sustained significant losses. Some of its fighters are going AWOL. Others have been captured. Amir Mansi, Gaza City's Kassam commander, was reduced to firing his own rocket at Israel on Saturday, and was killed by the IDF in the process.
More and more Gazans, the intelligence briefing went on, though overwhelmingly blaming Israel for their plight and redoubled in their hostility, are nonetheless also furious with Hamas for having built bunkers and tunnels but not bomb-shelters; for looting aid supplies; for using civilians as human shields while the leadership hides away.
Even as Israel has been mourning its diplomatic humiliation at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, and worrying about the rising tide of international protest over its 16-day assault, reports have been filtering back from the war zone for the past two or three days to confirm the intelligence chiefs' assessment.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel was "closing in" on its goals. In admirable contrast to the misplaced euphoria that characterized the initial phases of the Second Lebanon War, however, there has been a palpable effort not to overstate success.
As it demonstrated again on Sunday, hitting a school in Sderot and a kindergarten in Ashdod, Hamas can still badly harm Israel. The IDF's release of footage showing the intricate booby-trapping of a northern Gaza school, meanwhile, served as a reminder of Hamas's ongoing capability to hurt the Israeli soldiers making their painstaking way through the Strip. If Hamas forces in northern Gaza have sustained relatively heavy losses, the impact of the IDF's operations further south in Gaza is known to have been milder.
Hamas remains bent on trying to kidnap soldiers, orchestrate terror attacks, impose heavy losses on the IDF - anything for a dramatic, morale boosting, "high quality" success. The Israeli security forces dare not let down their guard for a millisecond.
As of Sunday night, Israel had not embarked on a drastically escalated third phase of Operation Cast Lead, after the air assaults of week one and the limited use of ground forces since week two. But it was gradually bringing more reservists into the fighting force, and carrying out various pinpoint operations - keeping Hamas under military pressure.
Olmert described the challenge that now presents itself as translating the battlefield progress into concrete achievements. Most critically, that means attaining a mechanism that can prevent a resumption of arms smuggling into Gaza via the tunnels from Egypt.
An immense network of tunnels - many of them still believed to be intact, despite repeated Israeli bombings - had enabled Hamas to progress a fair way down the path to replicating Hizbullah's weapons capacity and subterranean entrenchment. If the smuggling is allowed to resume, Israel will merely have set the stage for a far tougher next round against a Hamas more determined than ever to bring Israel to its knees - just as Hizbullah's serene rearmament since 2006 now sees it reconstituted as a greater strategic threat than it posed three years ago.
Egypt does want not the embarrassment of foreign forces deployed on its soil to put a halt to the smuggling. Israel's political leaders apparently do not support the military reconquest of the Corridor, and are uncertain as to how effectively the smuggling can be thwarted from the air. But Israeli security officials privately insist that a return to sole Egyptian supervision of the far side of the Philadelphi Corridor cannot be squared with the declared goal of this assault: ensuring long-term security for southern Israel.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is said to favor a unilateral halt to the fighting now, so that Israel is not bound to any new arrangements and can resume military action if it deems necessary, declared on Sunday that she had no intention of "making agreements with terror groups." What's needed, though, is not a deal with Hamas, but a credible agreement with Egypt. And here, the United States, unhelpful to Israel at the UN, could use its leverage with Cairo to assist in the attempt to formulate viable terms.
All of this, of course, would be anathema to Khaled Mashaal. But then Mashaal is less capable of dictating terms than he would have us all believe.
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