The eight days of Operation Pillars of Defense last November have now given way to the celebration of the eight days of Hanukah in Israel. Yet this present interlude of quietude on the Gaza border may best be described as the “Silver Blaze” in honor of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. For it is during the course of the short story by that name that Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes famously refers to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to which an inspector from Scotland Yard replies: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes famously responds, “That was the curious incident.”
Three weeks into the latest cease-fire, not a single significant terrorist attack has originated from the Gaza Strip. What does this period of “nothing in the night-time” signify? There are at least three possible explanations. The first is that the IDF has severely degraded the effective fighting capacities of not only Hamas, but also Islamic Jihad and the various Salafist groups operating in the Gaza Strip. While the possible success of the IDF’s airstrikes during Operation Pillars of Defense would explain a substantial reduction in the quality and intensity of terrorist activity in the short term, the IDF does not claim that it has completely destroyed the arsenals of the terror groups involved. Therefore, though the Israeli military airstrikes may serve to temporarily deter terror operations, it is highly unlikely that the effectiveness of such strikes account entirely for the respite.
The second possibility is that Islamic Jihad and the various Salafists operating in the Gaza Strip like Jaysh al-Islam and other fringe groups recognize the value of a temporary cease-fire and share Hamas’s assessment that a pause in hostilities will allow them to more effectively re-group. This scenario is more plausible than the first but begs the obvious question: What has changed? In the past, Hamas has negotiated temporary cease-fires with Israel that broke down almost immediately with one or more fringe jihad factions condemning Hamas for its lack of violent zeal and proving their own bona fides by ambushing an Israeli border patrol or launching a short range rocket at Sderot.
The third possibility is that Hamas has, at long last, achieved a complete monopoly on the use of force within the Gaza Strip. There is little doubt that Hamas has worked diligently to achieve this result for the past 5 years by co-opting several rival factions like the Popular Resistance Committees (which began as a radical offshoot of Fatah) and killing or arresting members of armed clans like the Dughmush who resisted Hamas control. But until this current lull, few outside observers believed Hamas had achieved this measure of control.
When the current cease-fire is inevitably broken, the Popular Resistance Committees may claim credit for the next sniper attack or Islamic Jihad may be responsible for the first rocket launched over Israeli airspace, but the question will be whether any of these groups are still capable of acting independently, or whether they are all now firmly on Hamas’s leash.
This raises an even more challenging question for Israel and the United States because for the past 20 years the Oslo Accords and peace process centered on the hope that the PLO could become a genuine peace partner while effectively policing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, neither hope proved justified, but the most frustrating aspect of the entire process was the seeming inability (or unwillingness) of Yasser Arafat and the PA during those first ten critical years to control Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all the other rejectionist forces.
Almost 20 years have passed since Oslo, and it now appears that Hamas may have achieved in Gaza what the PLO and PA could not complete: military control over that territory. For Israel, this result, if born out by subsequent events, will truly be a “curious incident” with far-reaching implications.