Why Israel may want a ceasefire, and why it may not be easy to achieve

Three days into Operation Breaking Dawn, even as Prime Minister Yair Lapid was declaring that the IDF’s assault on Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza would continue for “as long as necessary,” Israeli officials were privately confirming Sunday that they were holding contacts with Egyptian mediators on a ceasefire.

Israel’s readiness to end the operation is understandable. Targeted strikes on Friday and Saturday killed two of the most dangerous leaders of the Iran-sponsored terror group. Several members of a cell that intended to fire anti-tank missiles at soldiers or civilians across the Gaza border were also killed. Ammunition stores, rocket launchers and other Islamic Jihad assets have been destroyed.

The constantly upgraded Iron Dome missile defense system — how untenable Israel’s reality would have been without it — has intercepted almost all of the hundreds of rockets that were headed for populated areas. Israelis in the firing line — across much of the south and into central Israel — have been reliably following Homefront Command instructions to rush for reinforced rooms and shelters, preventing loss of life.

The death toll in Gaza is rising inexorably, but military officials are plausibly asserting that most of the dead are Islamic Jihad operatives. The death of seven Gazans, four of them children, in Jabaliya late on Saturday — initially reported by Palestinian media as a consequence of an Israeli strike — was quickly and credibly shown by the IDF, including via video footage, to have been the result of a failed Islamic Jihad rocket launch: Rather than soaring toward its intended Israeli civilian targets, it fell short and exploded inside the Strip, to tragic deadly effect.

The longer the conflict continues, however, the greater the potential for the IDF’s achievements to be undermined or reversed.

One or more errant strike on Gaza, with major Palestinian civilian casualties, would weaken the relatively solid diplomatic support Israel is receiving from many of its allies, led by the US, who were prepared ahead of time for Israel’s resort to force and given the reasons for it. A “successful” rocket attack, with major Israeli civilian casualties, would prompt growing demands at home for a deeper operation against Gaza’s terrorists.

Senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commanders Khaled Mansour (right) and Tayseer Jabari (left) in an undated photo. The pair were killed in separate Israeli airstrikes on August 5 and 6, 2022. (Ashraf Amra/Courtesy)

Whenever this round of conflict ends, as former head of IDF Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin summarized on Saturday night, those many Israelis living near Gaza who spent days under semi-lockdown last week — as Islamic Jihad prepared to attack, and the IDF, it turned out, was finalizing its plans to preempt — “will be left feeling bitter” that Islamic Jihad, not to mention Hamas, will continue to pose almost as potent a threat after the operation as before.

“But most of the [IDF] achievements are already behind us,” said Yadlin. While Israel should not be seeking a ceasefire, he added, it should certainly be ready for one.

Ronen Bar, the head of the Shin Bet security agency, reportedly said much the same thing to Israel’s Security Cabinet on Saturday night, telling ministers the operation would soon start to produce “diminishing returns.”

Accepting a halt sooner rather than later may be more palatable for the Israeli public because neither the government nor the security establishment created grandiose expectations for this umpteenth round of confrontation with Gaza’s terrorists.

There was a “concrete” threat of cross-border terrorism that had to be thwarted; there was a recognition that Islamic Jihad has bolstered its capabilities in both Gaza and the West Bank; and it was clear Islamic Jihad was also trying to create an equation whereby last week’s arrest of its West Bank terror chief would be avenged from Gaza. Operation Breaking Dawn was launched to address those challenges, and has done so, including via ongoing arrests in the West Bank.

But the Israeli leadership did not claim it was going to destroy Islamic Jihad. It did not assert that it would put a stop to Gaza rocket fire. And it has determinedly sought to avoid drawing Hamas into the conflict.

An Israeli soldier takes cover as an Iron Dome air defense system launches to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Aug. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Which brings us to the highly complex process that would need to unfold to bring about a ceasefire.

Iran, which has been hosting Islamic Jihad’s leader in Tehran, has no interest in stopping the attacks on Israel and is thoroughly indifferent to the consequences for Gaza. Islamic Jihad won’t want to challenge its Iranian financiers, but would rather not have Israel kill more of its commanders. Hamas, which is perpetually committed to destroying Israel but also governs the Strip, may determine that further escalation, in a conflict sparked by a rival terror group, is not in its wider interest right now. And yet Hamas may also see no powerful reason for rushing to extricate Israel and Islamic Jihad from battle.

Egypt and Qatar, with their respective spheres of influence, are working behind the scenes on a mechanism to end the fighting. But not only there are clashing interests, there are also logistical difficulties: The head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate asserted on Saturday night that the “entire PIJ top brass” had been killed. With Iran stoking further conflict among Islamic Jihad leaders overseas, and the Gaza commanders either dead or under fire, it may be far from straightforward to finalize and actually implement a ceasefire even if acceptable terms can be found. Underlining the complexities, an Egyptian effort to negotiate a short-term humanitarian halt to the fighting on Saturday night proved unsuccessful.

In this screengrab from a video published by the IDF on August 7, 2022, a rocket launch from the Gaza Strip falls short in the Jabaliya refugee camp. (Israel Defense Forces)

If and when the rockets stop, and the air force stops, Gaza will still be Gaza: an area where Israel has no civilian or military presence or claim, having wrenchingly withdrawn in 2005 to the pre-1967 lines. An area governed by a terrorist group that avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction.

Hamas frequently initiates conflict with Israel. It did so, indeed, just 15 months ago, and managed to stir violence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities, too. But, this time, in our routinely surreal reality, it is to Hamas that Israel is now looking to help secure a ceasefire.

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