As Gaza cease-fire holds, a haunting question lingers: When will the next war begin?

Unclear if Israel, Hamas met goals

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JERUSALEM — After nearly a month of round-the-clock car­nage and ter­ror, Gaza and south­ern Is­rael ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing new Tues­day: calm.

Once an Egyp­tian-bro­kered cease-fire kicked in at 8 a.m., there were no rocket at­tacks or mis­sile strikes. No tun­nel in­fil­tra­tions or shelled schools. But there were no cel­e­bra­tions or dec­la­ra­tions of vic­tory ei­ther. Just a sin­gle, haunt­ing ques­tion: If this war is truly over, how long un­til the next one be­gins?

Both Is­rael and Ha­mas went into the fight seek­ing to change the un­der­ly­ing dy­nam­ics of a sit­u­a­tion that has pro­duced three rounds of com­bat in less than six years while crip­pling the Gazan econ­omy. But af­ter 29 days of fight­ing that claimed nearly 2,000 lives, it is far from clear that ei­ther side has.

That could mean the next round of bat­tle kicks off in the com­ing few years, months or even days if both sides do not get enough of what they want dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions set to be­gin in Cairo to­day.

Ha­mas lead­ers have re­peat­edly said they seek an open­ing of Gaza’s bor­der cross­ings, the re­lease of Pal­es­tin­ian pris­on­ers and in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance in re­build­ing the ter­ri­tory’s shat­tered econ­omy, among other de­mands. Is­rael wants a de­mil­i­tariza­tion of the strip and a prom­ise of an end to the rocket fire.

Is­rael on Tues­day with­drew its re­main­ing ground forces from Gaza just ahead of the 72-hour truce’s start time, as both sides fired their fi­nal bar­rages.

An Is­rael De­fense Forces spokes­man, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said Is­rael “would con­tinue to main­tain de­fen­sive po­si­tions from the air, from the coast and from the ground” just out­side Gaza.

By Is­rael’s own ad­mis­sion, Ha­mas still has at least sev­eral thou­sand rock­ets de­spite fir­ing 3,300 and los­ing an ad­di­tional 3,000 to Is­raeli at­tacks. Ha­mas has re­served the right to dip deeper into its ar­se­nal if Is­rael fails to yield to the group’s de­mands. “They are still in­tact,” said Mkhaimer Abusaada, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at al-Azhar Univer­sity in Gaza, said of Ha­mas. “They are not bro­ken. They did not wave a white flag. It’s still a very strong re­sis­tance or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

In some ways, Mr. Abusaada said, the group is even stron­ger than it was at the war’s start, de­spite en­dur­ing weeks of Is­raeli bom­bard­ment. Ha­mas has used its de­cades-long fight with Is­rael to rally sup­port, and when the war be­gan, the group was badly in need of it. Dip­lo­mat­i­cally iso­lated from Arab pow­ers and fac­ing a fi­nan­cial crunch from the clo­sure of its smug­gling tun­nels, the group could not even af­ford to pay its 44,000 gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees. But the four-week war, in which Ha­mas launched rock­ets deeper into Is­raeli ter­ri­tory than ever be­fore and used tun­nels to carry out deadly in­fil­tra­tions, has boosted the group’s im­age among many Pal­es­tin­ians.

It has also brought the group’s lead­ers to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, where they will be able to make their de­mands and pos­si­bly win eco­nomic con­ces­sions that are now more des­per­ately needed than ever. “Now, Ha­mas is no lon­ger iso­lated,” Mr. Abusaada said. “The Amer­i­cans are ne­go­ti­at­ing with them in­di­rectly. The Is­rae­lis are ne­go­ti­at­ing with them in­di­rectly.”

But the Is­rae­lis are deeply re­luc­tant to give Ha­mas any­thing that could be per­ceived as a re­ward for its mil­i­tancy, and they hope that Gaza res­i­dents will ul­ti­mately blame Ha­mas for a war that left ap­prox­i­mately 1,800 Pal­es­tin­ians dead with lit­tle to show for it.

An Is­raeli mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said Tues­day that Ha­mas had been badly de­pleted by some 4,800 Is­raeli strikes on Gaza over the past months. The at­tacks de­stroyed hun­dreds of Ha­mas com­mand cen­ters and weap­ons fa­cil­i­ties and killed some 900 mil­i­tants, Is­rael’s mil­i­tary says. Troops also dis­man­tled 32 tun­nels, 14 of which con­nected di­rectly to Is­rael.

By con­trast, the of­fi­cial said, Ha­mas failed to land its punches. “They can tell a nar­ra­tive that they did dam­age to Is­rael, but re­ally the dam­age is quite lim­ited,” said the of­fi­cial, who was not au­tho­rized to speak on the record.

Still, there was lit­tle sense of tri­umph Tues­day in Is­rael, and not only be­cause many are still mourn­ing for 64 dead Is­raeli sol­diers and three ci­vil­ians. On Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal left and right, there were ap­pre­hen­sions that Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­ja­min Netan­yahu will not use the con­flict to try to cre­ate a new or­der in Gaza that does not in­volve re­cur­ring bouts of war.

The cease-fire was greeted with scorn by hard-line mem­bers of Is­rael’s Cabi­net who want the gov­ern­ment to top­ple Ha­mas and put Gaza un­der an in­ter­na­tional man­date. “This sit­u­a­tion of limbo — no war, no peace — is the worst sce­nario for Is­rael,” Is­raeli For­eign Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man said in an in­ter­view. “We can’t sur­vive hav­ing an­other con­flict ev­ery two or three years.”

On the other side of Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, La­bor Party leader Isaac Her­zog said Is­rael now has an op­por­tu­nity to use the Cairo talks to em­power the rel­a­tively mod­er­ate gov­ern­ment of Pal­es­tin­ian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mahmoud Ab­bas and re­store him to Gaza, seven years af­ter his forces were routed from the ter­ri­tory by Ha­mas. Ab­bas’ gov­ern­ment will lead the Pal­es­tin­ian del­e­ga­tion in Cairo, which will also in­clude rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Ha­mas and the Islamic Ji­had group. “There’s a clear con­ver­gence of in­ter­ests be­tween Egypt, Jor­dan, the Gulf states, Is­rael and the Pal­es­tin­ian Au­thor­ity in rec­og­niz­ing that we need to com­bat ter­ror­ism and move to­ward peace,” Mr. Her­zog said.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials ex­pressed skep­ti­cism Tues­day that the talks could suc­ceed in de­liv­er­ing much more than a frag­ile and tem­po­rary truce. Ha­mas re­mains the de facto power in Gaza, they said, and the group has no in­ter­est in chang­ing that. “A whole dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship could be built, but the chances of that hap­pen­ing are not all that great,” said an Is­raeli of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of an­o­nym­ity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak on the record.

The of­fi­cial said the one ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween these talks and the Cairo-based ne­go­ti­a­tions that ended the last war be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas is that Egypt has a new gov­ern­ment that is much more hos­tile to the Pal­es­tin­ian group. While Ha­mas was able to use tun­nels be­neath the Egyp­tian bor­der to smug­gle in weap­ons af­ter the 2012 fight ended, that will be more dif­fi­cult now that Egypt’s mil­i­tary-backed gov­ern­ment has ef­fec­tively shut the tun­nels down. “That may be the game-changer,” the of­fi­cial said. “If there is one.”

israel - egypt - Middle East - Africa - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian territories - North Africa - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Cairo - Hamas - Gaza - Avigdor Lieberman - Yitzhak Herzog


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