On Monday, halfway through a lecture on Iranian policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the popping of distant gunshots pierced the night air, interrupting the professor’s lecture. Right on cue, he paused, smiled, then quipped: “Well that’s either a celebration, or the rockets are coming and we’re getting out early. We’ll know soon enough.”
Thus emerged one of the oldest and most time-honored Israeli characteristics: the ability to laugh in the bleakest of times. Yet today, when a man in Tel Aviv tossed a bag full of explosives onto a bus, the situation changed, the laughter stopped. As the mosques in Gaza celebrated the bombing, the tone in Israel shifted. Suicide bombings, those devastating symptoms of the years surrounding the second Intifada, had returned to the era of Operation Pillar of Defense. The mood had shifted. The tone had changed. The Iron Dome can take down the rockets, or at least most of them, but suicide bombings on trams, buses, stations; those are near-impossible to defend.
In Gaza, the severity of the situation has imposed its will on the populace. Over 130 dead, nearly 30 of those children, over 1000 wounded. Israel has carried out nearly 1500 strikes since the operation began last week. Last night, Israel targeted and struck a car carrying 3 journalists, killing three. As the situation becomes more and more dire for Gazans, the calls for retaliation and retribution increase. The war was never just a kinetic operation, it was always a two-front combat: on the ground and in social media. As Gazans howl for retribution and Israelis clamor for ground operation, a ceasefire was always a distant reality. Even were a ceasefire to have been agreed upon, the likelihood of a comprehensive and total cessation of exchange was highly unlikely. More likely, however, would have been a preliminary agreement by both sides, followed by an errant or deliberate rocket flying into Israel, which would have been all the justification Israel needed for a ground operation. That the initial reports following the bus bombing have the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Fatah’s semi-official armed wing, taking the credit demonstrates that Hamas is not in a position to halt all Israel-bound attacks.
Within the respective governments, the ceasefire remained an elusive goal. In Israel, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, were split on the terms of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, with Netanyahu opposed and Barak in favor. On the Hamas side, the rhetoric of Khaled Meshal, the outgoing political bureau chief, has left little in doubt as to his feelings. Even the leaked terms of the ceasefire seem to insinuate the truce would be dead on arrival. According to Yedioth, Israel is demanding a 15-year cessation in rocket attacks from Gaza, while Hamas is demanding that Israel stops its targeted assassinations in Gaza and eases its import restrictions. These demands are neither realistic, nor historically cognizant. Israel has shown time and again a willingness to heavily restrict the flow of goods into Gaza, whereas Hamas has shown either a severe inability in halting rocket attacks, or a form of compliance in launching them.
As the White House condemns the Tel Aviv bombing, and Hillary Clinton leaves for Cairo, the chances of an Egyptian, or even US, brokered peace agreement wane. The sheer number of Israeli soldiers mobilized, well over 70,000, suggest either that a ceasefire was never a serious option, or that Barak is one of the best contingency-planners. Considering that the 2008 Cast Lead operation only mobilized 10,000 soldiers, it’s a safe bet on the former. The question that remains, then, is when and for how long a ground operation will take place. What will be the military objectives? How many boots will be put on the ground? If the goal is the complete elimination of Israeli-bound rockets, is an occupation the only sure way of guaranteeing no further rocket launches or arms smuggling? As my Israeli professor would quip: we’ll know soon enough.