The image of Israeli tanks and ground troops being redeployed from the same staging grounds that were used in Israel’s previous invasion into Gaza four years ago meant something quite different to Palestinians than it did to Israelis. To the former, it was a sign of retreat; to the latter, it was a show of restraint.
What Thursday’s pull-back simply means is that the Egypt-brokered cease-fire that ended eight days of fighting that killed at least 162 Palestinians and six Israelis lasted for a full day, and that the pullback shows that the Israeli government is not eager to start “mowing the lawn” again by sending ground forces into a fight that would kill hundreds of civilians and destroy entire neighborhoods as it did in the three-week Gaza War in early 2009.
For members of the ruling Hamas party and its Al Qassan Brigades militants, the sight of Israeli Defense Forces moving away from the line was their doing. As armed militants danced in the streets holding up their weapons, ranking Hamas leader Khalil Al Hayya presided over a provocative victory rally.
"From the lion's den, we declare victory," Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Ubaida said, calling Israel’s security a “hallucination,” according to Reuters.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak brushed off such notions on Thursday, calling the cease-fire a “paper bridge” that allows Hamas to save face with its public.
“In agreeing to the conditions for a cease-fire, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went against the wind and against the incitement in the rightist community and certain television channels,” said an editorial in Thursday’s edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which declared the latest round of fighting a “tie” so far but a loss at home for the far-right that wants Gaza taken over and Hamas wiped out.
But if rockets begin flying from Gaza into Israel again, the far right might get its way. Hamas’s new Fajr-5 rocket can hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the public’s tolerance for the emergence of a new longer-range threat would be low. So a ground invasion is not off the table, and those tanks and troops could return to the staging grounds along Route 232 that runs the length of Gaza's eastern border with Israel as quickly as they were seen leaving on Thursday.
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"We will take much tougher steps in the next round, with the understanding of the world," Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor said at a press conference in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, an Arab-Israeli man with alleged Hamas links was arrested on Thursday, accused by Israeli security forces of being the man who used a cell phone to detonate a bomb on a bus in central Tel Aviv, injuring 30, including six that had to be hospitalized.
"He admitted to carrying out the terrorist attack," Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told the Associated Press.