Hamas gunman 224 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Middle East expert Robert Satloff noted that Hamas "has no advocates of peace with Israel. The divide is between those who call for a tahdiya (a brief lull in the fighting) and those who favor a hudna (a longer-term armistice)."
Speaking over the weekend to Al-Jazeera, Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal made it clear which side of that debate he is on. In discussing his organization's proposed cease-fire with Israel, he admitted, "It is a tactic in conducting the struggle... It is normal for any resistance that operates in its people's interest... to sometimes escalate, other times retreat a bit... The battle is to be run this way, and Hamas is known for that."
So tahadiya it is.
Hamas has good reason to propose such a lull at this point. The diplomatic boycott of its leadership by the United States and European Union has held firm, despite efforts by those such as former US president Jimmy Carter to chip away at it.
The Egyptian lockdown on the Rafah crossing is hindering Hamas's efforts to bring more arms and personnel, including those generously provided by Iran, in through Gaza's southern border. And Israel's restrictions on nonessential supplies entering the Strip through its own crossings are both limiting Hamas's ability to develop its military infrastructure and fueling increased dissatisfaction with the movement's rule among the local Palestinians.
Despite all this, Israel too has legitimate reasons to weigh such a cease-fire offer. The residents of Sderot and other communities along the Gaza border deserve a respite from the incessant rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups that the government has thus far failed to halt.
A break in hostilities might also provide a better window of opportunity in which release of hostage IDF soldier Gilad Schalit could be negotiated. And a lessening of Gazans' hardships is a necessary goal both for humanitarian concerns and for Israel's diplomatic standing.
However, the downside of a temporary cease-fire, a tahadiya as proposed by Hamas, could also be significant. To understand why, it is perhaps useful to draw an analogy with another "brief lull in the fighting," one that is particularly resonant as we prepare to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's birth - a short cease-fire we recall here today by the Hebrew equivalent of tahadiya, "hafuga."
The hafuga came just weeks after the formal outbreak of the War of Independence, beginning on June 11, 1948, and ending a month later, followed shortly afterward by a second cease-fire that lasted into October. At the time, the fledgling Israeli army was exhausted and perilously short of supplies, and the invading Arab armies, in particular that of Egypt, were concerned their own supply lines were in danger of being cut off.
Although the terms of the cease-fire negotiated by the United Nations mandated that neither side rearm itself during this period, neither the Israelis nor the Arabs had any intention of honoring this condition. The difference was that the former were able to do this far more successfully; the carefully-laid plans of David Ben-Gurion's government to purchase and transport military hardware to the new-born state, including guns, ammunition, artillery and even aircraft, paid off in spades, enabling Israel to decisively regroup during the hafuga.
That lull is now viewed by military historians as having proved a decisive mistake by the Arab side, which fatally underestimated Israel's capacity to develop its military capability during the cease-fire.
For Israel to now make the same error regarding Hamas, even as it marks the anniversary of its remarkable victory in the War of Independence, would be an irony this country can ill afford.
That is why along with a total absence of fire from Gaza, regardless of which Palestinian group takes responsibility, and an end to Hamas-orchestrated attacks on Israelis anywhere, the government is demanding a complete halt to illicit shipments of weapons into the Gaza as a condition of a cease-fire.
Unfortunately, taking Hamas at its word in such an agreement (even if it would give it), or being able to monitor its compliance, would be a difficult undertaking. Hamas has made clear since taking full control of Gaza last year that strengthening its capability to strike at Israeli targets remains its highest priority. Just this weekend the Egyptian authorities arrested agents of the Muslim Brotherhood working on behalf of its fellow radical Islamic movement to obtain the technology to build armed aerial drones that would enable Hamas to strike at Israeli targets well beyond the range of its Kassam rockets.
Especially cynical and reprehensible has been the Hamas strategy of attacking the Israeli crossing points through which food and humanitarian aid is supplied to Gaza. This tactic is part of a coordinated effort to aggravate the situation of its own subjects, to pressure the international community into reopening the Rafah crossing to Egypt on its own conditions, meaning that Hamas would retain full control of its side of the border. Having failed thus far in that effort, Hamas has tried a new tactic in the past few days by denying UNRWA the fuel it needs for its trucks to supply aid throughout Gaza.
In the coming days, look for Hamas to step up its propaganda efforts by painting Israel as recalcitrant in not accepting its cease-fire offer, while looking for ways to increase and highlight the hardships of ordinary Gazans as solely the result of Israeli measures. Israel, in response, is already looking for alternative ways of getting food and other supplies into Gaza without risking its own personnel, perhaps through the Rafah crossing from Sinai.
Accepting any form of cease-fire, though, in which Israel could not reasonably expect to halt or severely limit arms shipments into Gaza, could be too risky a proposition, even if it would bring temporary relief to the residents of Sderot and the IDF soldiers serving along the border. If at the end of its tahdiya, Hamas is able to down IAF helicopters with smuggled-in anti-aircraft weapons, or strike at Israeli communities with improved rockets and drones, then this country will have forsaken the lessons of its own hafuga, just as we celebrate the victory it helped bring about.