I had originally suggested that Israel’s ground assault was brought on by the lack of options after over a week of rocket fire and aerial assaults: Israel couldn’t bring about an end to the rocket fire coming from Gaza, nor could Hamas hope to do anything other than keep firing rockets and hope that it could drag Israel into committing troops on the ground and inflicting more casualties.
By continuing to fire rockets, Hamas provided Israel with the context it needed to enter Gaza and step the conflict up a notch. But given Hamas’ role as the greatest ‘resistance’ group acting against the Israelis, calling off their rocket fire and just playing victim has hardly ever an option.
In reality, Hamas had two shitty options: stop firing and maybe gain international support, or continue firing and maybe gain international support – and maybe draw Israel into a conflict long and bloody enough to wrestle concessions in the advent of a ceasefire.
But by the time the ground assault began, Hamas was desperate for a victory and had opted to make several attempts into Israel via their tunnel network. So while Iron Dome was the star of the early part of the conflict, providing a protective blanket to amaze and reassure Israelis, the focus of the second part of the conflict was (and remains) the tunnels, their extent and how Israel must neutralize their threat.
Prior to the infiltration attempts in the second and third week of the month (I’ll take the time to nail down the dates if someone ever pays me for my analysis), there was hardly any mention of tunnels at all. Netanyahu stated in the early part of the month that the reason for the escalation was in fact to stop rocket fire coming in to Israel – a Quixotic goal if it was to be taken seriously (I don’t).
But with the increased attempts – initially thwarted but eventually successful – to use the tunnels to inflict IDF casualties, the focus of the conflict shifted towards the significant threat they pose. Suddenly, and rightfully so, the tunnels were the focus of the media and the IDF’s PR push. But unlike the innumerable rockets, the tunnels could be counted by the dozens, and more easily tracked down and neutralized. All of a sudden, the IDF had an achievable goal and a potential route towards an exit strategy – the only route that would leave Hamas with less than what it started. Let me explain:
Being utterly unable to stop rocket fire without heavy Israeli casualties and a complete re-occupation of Gaza, the IDF instead focused on the achievable goal of making selective incursions into Gaza to locate and destroy the tunnel network. Once this objective is declared achieved – supposedly within the week at current IDF estimates – Israel can withdraw from the Strip while claiming the clean victory of having neutralized the security threat to the Gaza periphery (and the country), setback Hamas, and restored deterrence.
Given this framework, its easy to see why Israel has no reason to accept a ceasefire or negotiate for an end to the conflict. Hamas entered this war with very little and could only gain from a negotiated truce that would see at least some of its demands met (principally an end to the closed borders and fishing limits). For Israel’s part, in the advent of a ceasefire they would need to demand a demilitarization and the dearming of the strip – something that Hamas would never agree to.
With the tunnels more-or-less destroyed, Israel has a secure exit route: they can unilaterally withdraw and claim their victory, while offering Hamas no concessions and little as possible to show for what will have been a month of conflict, aside from death and destruction. Israel will have set the stage for returning to ‘quiet for quiet’ and Hamas will be left without an end to the siege, without the tunnel network into Israel, and depleted arms stocks to boot. It’s only option would be to miserably maintain rocket fire, or crawl back to Abu Mazen and the PA with cap in hand, seeking to carry on the unity agreement as a means to end Gazan suffering – which Hamas certainly cares for, if only because they depend on Gazan sympathy to remain relevant.
So you see the irony – the tunnels provide an exit plan from Gaza for Israel.
tl;dr: Odds are for a unilateral disengagement from Israel at this point.