Officials in Israel and the Gaza Strip are doubtful that Egyptian efforts to bring about a cease-fire will bear immediate fruit. Senior Israeli officials believe that there will be a few more days of fighting and several rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks before Operation Pillar of Defense comes to an end.
Israel was already willing to end the operation on Wednesday after its opening strike in which Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari was killed and the Fajr missile launching capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were seriously degraded. But the situation changed a bit on Thursday. After recovering from the initial shock, Hamas reestablished its operational command and resumed military operations. Jabari's place was taken by his deputy, Marwan Issa, and more than 200 rockets were fired into Israel, including a Fajr-5 that was launched toward the Tel Aviv area. For the Palestinians, this was an impressive achievement. This marked the first time that a terrorist group has managed to produce an equation that includes the Tel Aviv area.
This Palestinian success took a bit away from Israel's feelings of accomplishment in recent days. Israel responded on Thursday night with two moves — launching lightning air strikes on 70 Grad rocket launching sites in Gaza and announcing the possible callup of 30,000 reservists. In reality, the Israel Defense Forces plans to call up a much smaller number of reservists, a process that will take several days. The reservists will be dispatched to various sectors around the country to conduct routine security activities, taking the place of regular soldiers who have been sent to the Gaza area.
Israel is hoping that the mere threat of a widescale callup and the movement of a large number of regular troops toward Gaza will deter Hamas, whose grip on Gaza could be threatened by an IDF ground operation. In an optimistic scenario, Hamas would agree to an immediate cease-fire that would apply to all Gaza terror groups. Such an agreement would include an explicit commitment to halt rocket attacks for a prolonged time period, with Egypt acting as the guarantor. However, Hamas is unlikely to agree to halting weapons production and smuggling efforts. Also, a Hamas commitment to a long-term halt of rocket fire would not have any real meaning if there is no effective monitoring mechanism.
Some IDF officials believe that Hamas has no real interest in ending the conflict quickly, even with the callup announcement and the threat of an IDF ground operation. Hamas leaders understand that the domestic and international legitimacy to act that Israel is currently enjoying will erode over time, especially if casualty numbers on both sides rise. In this pessimistic scenario, Hamas will continue to launch around 200 rockets daily, which would exhaust Israel and drag the IDF into a long and expensive ground operation.
In the coming days, Israel will have to act somewhere in the middle of these optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The Egyptian prime minister was set to visit Gaza on Friday. He was apparently coming as a fair mediator, but his closeness to Hamas casts doubt on his ability to find a quick fix to the situation. Also, voices coming from Egypt (mass demonstrations were expected in Tahrir Square on Friday and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit Cairo over the weekend) may make it difficult to formulate a solution, which at this point might be viewed as an Israeli surrender.
It is therefore likely that it will take a few more days before the mechanisms are created that will permit the fighting to end. During this time, the IDF will try to expand its operational achievements and reduce the chance for damage on the homefront. The Iron Dome anti-rocket system will play a central role in this (as of Thursday night, it had achieved a 77% success rate, intercepting more than 130 rockets since Wednesday). Civilians will need to show discipline, as foolhardiness by Israelis on the homefront could end in disaster.
The IDF will also need to avoid harming innocent civilians in Gaza. This is crucial to maintaining the legitimacy to act that Israel is receiving from abroad. Israel will continue to receive such legitimacy, as long as the IDF succeeds in focusing its activities on terrorist organizations.
As of Thursday night, the end of the fighting still seemed distant, despite an uptick in diplomatic activity. Israel will need to notch a major achievement in order to negate the Palestinian success in reaching Tel Aviv and to neutralize the familiar paradigm in which the ending point of one round of violence becomes the starting point of the next.