Analysis: Hamas will never change. Will Egypt?

Public comments from Cairo have been highly discouraging.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
It is an indication of the resilience of the smuggling network that runs under the Egypt-Gaza border that on Saturday night, at the end of the 22nd day of Operation Cast Lead, the IDF announced it had targeted more than 100 tunnels in the course of the day. For more than three weeks now, the IDF has been trying to tackle the tunnel infrastructure from the air, and still the job has not been accomplished. Many of the smuggling routes beneath the narrow Philadelphi Corridor are evidently still usable. And as the cabinet met in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to approve an Israeli halt to the operation, Hamas was making abundantly clear that it has every intention of using them. "We will do everything we can to get weapons to our people," declared Talal Nasser, a Damascus-based Hamas official. The government had hoped that Hamas, battered by three weeks of an Israeli assault, would cry out for a cease-fire. Hoped, but didn't really expect. When it put the much-escalated Phase Three of an IDF ground assault on indefinite hold, the government chose to avoid the risks of large-scale, bitter fighting in the very heart of Gaza's densest population centers. But it knew it was also choosing to drastically reduce the likelihood of Hamas begging for a respite. Hamas on Saturday night was, quite predictably, claiming victory. It was, quite predictably, blaming Israel for the disaster that has befallen Gaza under its Kassam- and Grad-firing watch. It was, quite predictably, vowing to maintain its resistance. But Hamas, equally predictably, was never going to fundamentally change a mindset that emphatically places the destruction of Israel above the well-being of Palestinians. Where there has been change, however, is in Israel. And where there must be change, if the past 22 days of fighting are to have any lasting impact, is in Egypt. Though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's outgoing cabinet chose not to pursue the assault on Hamas to the point where it was no longer capable of firing across the border, Israel nonetheless demonstrated a dramatic new readiness to take hitherto rejected steps to protect its populace. The IDF deliberately bombed mosques that it knew were serving as terror bases. It hit key Hamas terror leaders in their homes after they chose to disregard warnings to evacuate their families. It pressed on with the offensive even after shells fired back at sources of Hamas fire caused heavy damage to UN facilities. Ministers and the IDF repeatedly expressed regret at the deaths of civilians in such incidents, and they insisted that Israel was doing its utmost to minimize such casualties. But as the relatively high number of "friendly fire" deaths and injuries sustained by the IDF itself underlined, things will inevitably go awry in a war that the enemy has insisted on fighting from around its own people's homes and schools and hospitals. Saturday night's cease-fire vote was a function, first, of the widely shared sense among ministers and analysts that Hamas, give or take some parting shots, will not lightly resume rocket fire at Israel. This is an entirely speculative assessment, whose validity is about to be tested. So, too, of course, is the government's insistence that the IDF will respond fiercely to any such fire. Second, the cabinet vote was a consequence of an agreement signed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Friday with the departing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, along with commitments from Britain, France, Germany and Italy, to prevent intended Hamas weapons supplies getting anywhere near the Philadelphi Corridor. At the same time, the Defense Ministry's shuttling diplomat-general Amos Gilad has reached understandings with Egypt about more effective anti-smuggling action at the border. There is little prospect of even the best-intentioned international effort finding every Grad needle hidden away in the vast haystacks of international trade. Thus, the abiding impact of Operation Cast Lead depends primarily on a very different Egyptian attitude to Hamas's resupply than that which has prevailed up until now. Saturday's public comments from Egypt were highly discouraging. President Hosni Mubarak made clear that Egypt would not agree to the presence of any foreign forces to assist in sealing the Philadelphi Corridor. And Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit declared that "no American-Israeli agreement is binding on us." Aboul Gheit, who has repeatedly denied that arms are being smuggled through the tunnels anyway, went on to assert that Israel's resort to force had shown it to be "drunk on power and violence." Behind the scenes, some Israeli sources say, Egypt is taking a different line. Its tolerance for Hamas is over, they argue. It wants to force Hamas into a subservient role to a resurgent Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza. And it's going to crack down on the smuggling this time. Really. The government made plain at the start of Operation Cast Lead that it was not seeking to end Hamas's rule in Gaza as a stated goal, but that it would have no objection if that were the result. Amid the considerable uncertainty surrounding a unilateral cease-fire on Saturday night, it was unfortunately clear that this definitive result had not been achieved.