The false front of the Gaza invasion

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on July 18, 2014.

Tel Aviv — The day started with a cease-fire, and ended with a ground invasion.

Israeli troops moved across the border into the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday night, the first large-scale ground offensive since a 2008-2009 war that killed more than 1,400 people and caused widespread destruction. The invasion, announced at around 10:30 p.m. local time, followed hours of heavy shelling aimed at clearing improvised explosive devices from the border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would seek to destroy "terror tunnels," after two attempted Palestinian incursions into southern Israel in the past two weeks, one of which left eight Hamas gunmen dead on Thursday morning, July 17. The army will also target the launchers that various groups have used to fire more than 1,000 rockets at Israel.

It is a major escalation that was never really supposed to happen: By all accounts, Netanyahu was reluctant to send ground troops into Gaza, despite mounting pressure from the public and the right flank of his coalition.

He approved it anyway, on a day that ironically started with a five-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" requested by the United Nations, which was largely observed by both sides despite a few minor violations. At midday, the BBC reported that a long-term cease-fire had been reached after a round of Egyptian-led indirect talks in Cairo.

In hindsight, the report—attributed to Israeli officials—seems like deliberate spin, as do much of this week's diplomatic efforts. The Egyptians announced their own cease-fire proposal on Monday night, which Israel respected for a few hours, before resuming airstrikes in the afternoon after Hamas launched dozens of rockets.

Hamas said it was never briefed on the Egyptian proposal—and learned about it from news reports.

Hamas said it was never briefed on the Egyptian proposal—and learned about it from news reports. The group rejected the idea, and diplomatic sources said subsequent talks yielded little progress. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman, said on Thursday that Hamas did not even have any senior officials in Cairo, except for Moussa Abu Marzouq, a longtime resident of the city.

The effort was a charade, Hamas sources said, a feeling that was perhaps confirmed when Netanyahu explicitly mentioned it in his statement announcing the invasion. "Israel agreed to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire," Netanyahu said. "Hamas rejected it and continued to fire rockets at Israeli cities."

Hamas has been clear about its demands since the conflict began: It wants Israel to lift the siege of Gaza and to release the dozens of prisoners freed in the 2011 deal for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who were rearrested this summer in the wake of the killing of three kidnapped Israeli teens.

Neither of these demands, however, are politically viable. Members of Netanyahu's government, including hawkish Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, have demanded an end to prisoner swaps. And the military-backed government in Egypt, which labeled Hamas a terrorist organization and spent a year demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood, is unlikely to agree to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

Indeed, the Egyptian government went so far as to blame Hamas for the ongoing violence. "Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could have saved the lives of at least 40 Palestinians," said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, according to the state-run MENA news agency.

It is a sharp turnabout from 2012, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government played a key role in mediating an end to the last war in Gaza. Turkey and Qatar could also be viable negotiators, but the former has played little role so far and the latter is unacceptable to Israel, given its close ties with Hamas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is making his own attempt to talk with Israel, Hamas, and various third parties. But he seems increasingly sidelined in Ramallah, and there is concern within his Fatah movement that a cease-fire with significant concessions from Israel could strengthen Hamas.

The two Palestinian parties signed a reconciliation deal earlier this year, forming a "national consensus" government. The unity government included no members of Hamas and was widely seen as a concession and a sign of weakness by the ruling party in Gaza. Today, the agreement is in tatters, and while the Palestinian Authority has issued the requisite condemnations of the war in Gaza, it has also tried to prevent any popular protest. A loosening of the siege would ease the financial stranglehold that helped compel Hamas to sign the deal.

"With time, with successive rounds of conflict, Hamas is becoming the counterpart, the political representative, to Israel," said Ghassan Khatib, a former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority. "The party making war and peace on behalf of Palestinians is Hamas. The PLO is losing the only achievement it had over the past half-century, to represent the Palestinian people."

With no trusted mediator, the thinking in Jerusalem among Israeli officials is that talks are premature.

Analysts and intelligence sources believe Hamas is increasingly divided, with the Qassam Brigades, the military wing, largely calling the shots.

Analysts and intelligence sources believe Hamas is increasingly divided, with the Qassam Brigades, the military wing, largely calling the shots. Political leaders, many of whom live abroad, have been far less vocal than members based in Gaza.

"There was no agreement between the military wing … and the political wing," says Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general. "If such a consensus will be found, then probably a new time will be determined for the start of the cease-fire, and there will be one. If not, the fighting will continue."

For how long remains an open question. Bennett told Israel's Channel 2 that the ground invasion would focus only on "tunnel infrastructure," and an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said it was not aimed at "toppling Hamas." Netanyahu does not want to reoccupy the strip, despite what some members of his government might hope.

With the smuggling tunnels into Sinai largely destroyed, Hamas will find it difficult to resupply in the short term, and Israeli officials hope this offensive will compel the Qassam Brigades to negotiate.

But the brigades have already warned that Israel will "pay a heavy price" for the ground invasion; the group is unlikely to back down, even after 10 days of heavy bombardment that has killed more than 230 people in Gaza. The 2012 war ended with vague promises to loosen the blockade that were never fulfilled, and Palestinian sources say Hamas is unlikely to accept a similar deal this time. It is vastly outmatched by the Israeli army, of course, but a long and costly ground campaign in Gaza would very quickly lose support among the Israeli public.

The Israeli cabinet on Thursday night also approved the mobilization of another 18,000 reservists, on top of the 48,000 already authorized. Tanks and armored personnel carriers have slowly massed along the border during the past week.

The talk is still of a limited incursion—but with no effective mediation and neither side willing to compromise, its scope could slowly broaden.