Analyze This: Battle lull: A cease-fire by any other name?

The forecast here is for serious storm clouds.

cleaning tank 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
cleaning tank 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
After three days in which there have no more than the same number of Kassam attacks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas believes there has been "an agreement in principle" between Israel and Hamas on a Gaza cease-fire. Egyptian sources, some of who were reportedly involved in negotiating such a deal, have reportedly confirmed that account to the Arabic media. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak deny any such arrangement has been made. So does Hamas, with a spokesman for the organization telling reporters in Gaza yesterday, "The growing discussion about [a period of] calm doesn't mean there is a deal or understanding." So is this a cease-fire by any other name, or simply a very brief lull in the battle between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces, liable to heat up again at any minute? To answer that question requires looking slightly back at what both sides have said in the past about the possibility of such an arrangement. The Sharon and Olmert governments have declared repeatedly since the 2005 disengagement, that if there were no attacks from Gaza onto Israeli soil, there would be no reason for Israel to respond. While never framed in the context of a formal cease-fire - since Jerusalem has set further conditions (renunciation of terror, recognition of Israel's right to exist and of prior agreements with the PA) before entering any negotiations with the radical Islamist movement - it can be said that this is a sort of "offer in principle" to Hamas. It is also reasonable to presume that this point has been repeatedly stressed by Israeli security officials in discussions with those of their Egyptian counterparts that also speak with the Hamas leadership. Hamas, for its part though, has always placed at least two additional conditions on its willingness for a hudna from rocket and terror attacks from Gaza, since taking control there in the summer of 2006: Control of the border crossings with Egypt, and a cessation of those IDF operations also directed against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. Indeed, just last week, Channel 2 Middle East correspondent Ehud Ya'ari asserted that the Hamas leadership's short-term strategy in raising the stakes with its Grad attacks on Ashkelon was directly aimed at achieving those aims, and any cease-fire that didn't include them would fall short of a victory for the organization. No wonder, then, that Hamas would be reluctant to publicly acknowledge its lessening of Kassam attacks within the context of a cease-fire that failed to measure up to that standard. The Olmert government also has its own good reasons to prudently refrain from using the "c" word, even for a short time. For one thing, as long as even a single Kassam a day lands on Israeli territory, that's still one too many. For another, Gilad Schalit still remains a hostage in Gaza, and as long as he remains in Hamas's hands, the government cannot forsake any possible option - including a military one - to free him. Still, both Hamas and Israel have good tactical reasons for wanting a period of relative quiet in Gaza for the short-term. After Operation Hot Winter, Gaza's forces need a breather to regroup and rearm. Its political leadership also needs time to adjust to the fact that in any reheating of the action down south, they will likely find themselves directly in the IDF's sights. Any delay in a possible major Israeli military ground incursion into Gaza allows its rulers to better prepare the Strip's defenses, especially by reinforcing the area with the sophisticated bunkers and booby traps whose construction are being overseen by Iranian-trained Hamas experts. Despite this, Jerusalem also has reasons for not wanting to launch a Gaza invasion right now. The IDF would surely prefer that any such operation be conducted at a time when the clear skies so crucial for Israel's air superiority are guaranteed - and as the weather yesterday demonstrated, the calendar isn't quite there yet. As for the Olmert government, after suffering through the Winograd Report, it surely doesn't want to move in on Gaza until it has a clearer exit strategy - and that will likely take the kind of highest-level diplomatic activity with the US and Europeans that only now seems to be getting underway. So for the time being, the lessening of Kassam attacks, and also of Israeli operations in Gaza, serves the interest of both sides. But don't confuse a convenient lull with a calculated cease-fire, or expected it to last much longer. The "hot winter" may be over in Gaza, but as spring comes in the next few weeks, the forecast here is for serious storm clouds to soon start reforming over the country's South.