Pulverized by Israel, Palestinians hold out for favorable cease-fire in Gaza

Support for Hamas is growing in Gaza after weeks of Israeli bombardment. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the US supports an Egyptian cease-fire proposal rejected by Hamas.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Members of a Palestinian family flee their houses in Gaza City, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A high-level attempt by the UN chief and US Secretary of State John Kerry to end deadly Israel-Hamas fighting was off to a rough start Monday: Gaza's Hamas rulers signaled they won't agree to an unconditional cease-fire, Israel's prime minister said he'll do whatever is necessary to keep Israelis safe from Hamas attacks.

Abed Akara fled his house near Gaza's southeastern border with Israel on Friday, the morning after Israel launched a ground operation here. When he saw the tanks advancing and shelling homes, he gathered his wife and eight children and they ran for their lives.

He can't go home, nor does he know if he will have a home left to return to. Yet Mr. Akara says that if he could choose between an immediate stop to the killing and continued resistance by Hamas in order to wring cease-fire concessions from Israel, the choice is simple: “war.”

Many Palestinians in Gaza appear to agree with Akara. That apparent willingness to endure a longer war as Hamas battles a much stronger enemy is a powerful indication of how desperate many have become over the past year in this coastal enclave, particularly after Egypt closed its border with Gaza.

“No human wants any round of violence to last any longer. But the trend here is to live in dignity or die,” says Suleiman Baraka, whose 11-year-old son was killed in a previous conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2009.

That sentiment does not translate to a groundswell of support for Hamas itself. And support is likely to falter as civilian casualties continue to mount, more are displaced, and homes and neighborhoods are destroyed. Hamas is increasingly isolated in the region, and earlier this year agreed to a unity government with its rival Fatah that would – in theory – end Hamas's governance in Gaza.

But as international efforts to reach a cease-fire intensify, with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo for talks, there is little apparent public pressure here on Hamas to agree to a deal that does not ease the blockade and improve daily life.

Hamas has said it will not agree to an unconditional ceasefire. Deputy leader Ismail Haniya said in a televised address Monday that Gaza “cannot go back to the silent death” of the blockade. “Gaza has decided to end the blockade by its blood and by its courage,” he said. “This siege, this unjust siege, must be lifted.”

Israel's defense minister said Monday that Israel would keep fighting as long as necessary.

At least 604 people have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began July 8. Two Israeli civilians have died from rockets launched by Gaza militants, and Israel announced that nine Israeli soldiers were killed in its ground operation in Gaza Monday, and one today, bringing the total IDF death toll to 28.

Tunnels and outages

Israel and Egypt have limited the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took control of the territory. Its isolation briefly eased under Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi until he was overthrown last year. Today the Rafah border crossing is largely sealed.

The closure of the tunnels has crimped supplies of fuel, concrete, and medicines, as well as food and other essentials. Palestinians say that Gaza resembles an open-air prison as travel is so restricted. Mr. Baraka, an astrophysicist who previously worked in the US, says he has missed many international conferences and his research is stymied by his inability to travel.

Israelis argue that the blockade is needed to stop Hamas from building tunnels and rockets that threaten its security.

Many in Gaza – even those who dislike Hamas – now say that with their living conditions dramatically worse, and having already withstood two wars with Israel in recent years, they do not want to go through another only to end up in an even worse situation.

In a dusty Khan Younis cemetery Saturday, where crowds gathered amid thorn bushes and graves, two men were buried at the same time – one, a fighter for Hamas's militia who was killed fighting Israeli soldiers at the border; the other, a civilian killed by an airstrike. The second man's family member, Khaled Rageb, described himself as a supporter of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a rival to Hamas. Still, he said he opposed any truce that would make the “blood of the martyrs” meaningless.

As family members shoveled dirt into the grave, two rockets roared into the sky toward Israel. The men in the cemetery lifted their hands and cheered "Allahu akbar!" or "God is greatest!"

A gamble for Hamas

Hamas has gambled that as civilian casualties mount, so will international pressure for a ceasefire agreement that includes significant concessions to Hamas, says Nathan Thrall, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program. “They will start to soften on this demand for unconditional ceasefire and will start to put forward a compromise.”

Hamas may also be counting on a low tolerance for casualties in Israel, and it has so far fought aggressively to inflict them, using its tunnel system to launch multiple deadly raids into Israel and showing a more developed force in combat with Israelis than in previous conflicts. It also claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier; the Israeli military today confirmed that one soldier ambushed in a weekend attack is MIA, though presumed dead. The toll after four days of ground operations – 28 Israeli soldiers – is nearly triple the number that died in the three-week Gaza war of 2009.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday vowed to expand the ground operation, many in Gaza are convinced that Israel will flinch first. “Hamas simply cannot stop the war now without getting a result. Because that would be suicide,” says Belal Hassan, a Gaza analyst. “People will ask why we went through this war, if we don't see” any benefit from it.

And if it gets a favorable settlement, Hamas could emerge with a political victory, even as Israel pulverizes its military infrastructure. "I think that basically unless it ends with Hamas raising a white flag, I think it will come out of this thing politically stronger,” says Mr. Thrall.

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