TIME Middle East

Israel-Gaza Talks Collapse as Fighting Resumes Where It Left Off

Destruction is seen from the bathroom of a Palestinian apartment in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun, on August 18, 2014.
Destruction is seen from the bathroom of a Palestinian apartment in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun, on August 18, 2014. Thomas Coex—AFP/Getty Images

Renewed rocket fire from the Gaza strip was met with Israeli airstrikes Tuesday, as Egypt negotiations were called off

Hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed and peace negotiations in Cairo were called off Tuesday, with Israeli negotiators called home to Jerusalem hours before an already prolonged cease-fire was due to expire.

Militants in Gaza launched three rockets in the direction of the Israeli city of Beersheba at close to 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday afternoon, Israel Defense Forces reported. They fell in open areas and no one was injured. But the very fact of even a trio of rockets being launched tested the doctrine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials had reiterated in recent days: that Israel would not negotiate under fire, and would not accept even a “drizzle” of rocket fire from Hamas and its allies in Gaza.

“If Hamas thinks that through the continued drizzle of rocket fire it will force us to make concessions, it’s mistaken,” Netanyahu warned on Sunday. The metaphor of this drizzle – or tif-toof as it’s referred to in Hebrew – has become the new catch-phrase being used in Israel to embody a zero-tolerance policy to rockets. Tens of thousands of Israelis, including residents of the southern parts of Israel who have often been subjected to rocket fire even when there isn’t a full-scale conflict going on, protested in Tel Aviv last Thursday night, demanding a more definitive solution to the problem.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett, said after the renewed fire Tuesday that it was impossible to negotiate with Hamas. “When you hold negotiations with a terror organization, you get more terror,” he said. “Hamas thinks that firing rockets helps in securing achievement in negotiations, therefore it is firing at Israel even during a cease-fire. Rockets are not a mistake [for Hamas], they are a method.”

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, accused Israel of dragging out the talks and of not being serious about reaching an agreement. “Israel’s foot-dragging proves it has no will to reach a truce deal,” Abu Zuhri said. “The Palestinian factions are ready to all possibilities,” he added, presaging the likelihood of a return to further conflict.

He also said that he had “no information about rocket fire coming from Gaza,” making it unclear as to which group actually launched the rockets. There are smaller militant groups than Hamas operating in Gaza; the largest of them, Islamic Jihad, has a delegation attending the talks in Cairo.

The return to hostilities is hardly the outcome everyone was waiting for as negotiators neared the end of their deadline for reaching a deal to bring a brutal and bloody summer of fighting to an end. Only a day earlier, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations meeting in Cairo were reported to be very close to reaching an agreement, as the nearly week-long ceasefire was extended for another 24 hours.

However, there were still large gaps on key issues. Hamas has demanded a complete lifting of the closure on the Gaza Strip, as well as permission to build an international seaport in Gaza. Israel has said it will not allow Hamas to use looser restrictions to rearm or to rebuild tunnels into Israel.

After the three initial rockets, further rocket salvoes on southern Israel were reported Tuesday afternoon. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF Spokesperson said that the IDF “will continue striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip, in order to restore security for the State of Israel.”

TIME Israel

Israel-Hamas Talks Show Changing Imperatives as Cease-Fire Nears End

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: A Palestinian look a heavy destruction in Al Shaaf neighbourhood during a 72 hours ceasefire on August 11, 2012. ALESSIO ROMENZI
A Palestinian man looks at heavy destruction during a 72 hours cease-fire in Al Shaaf neighborhood of Gaza City on Aug. 11, 2014 Alessio Romenzi for TIME

A 72-hour cease-fire is set to end Wednesday night

Almost three decades ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was the editor of a new book called Terrorism: How the West Can Win. He was then Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and the 1986 book was part of the doctrine he was developing for himself and for Israel: We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Times have changed.

Today Israel’s negotiators are in Cairo, where they’re engaged in indirect negotiations with the militant group Hamas—as well as other Palestinian factions—in an effort to reach a cease-fire agreement to end more than a month of war in Gaza. The stakes are high, with the latest temporary cease-fire set to expire Wednesday night. The talks are part of the search for an exit strategy from Operation Protective Edge, which Israel launched on July 8 in response to a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza. Hamas says it acted in retaliation for the arrests of its activists in the West Bank. But the very fact that Israel and Hamas are participating in a version of proximity talks—where the parties don’t sit in the same room but are close enough for a mediator to facilitate negotiations—shows how far both sides have come from their hardline positions.

Israel has made its stance clear: It will not negotiate with Hamas, which both Israel and the U.S. view as a terrorist organization. Hamas, for its part, doesn’t recognize Israel and calls in its charter for the destruction of the Jewish State, but has recently offered a 10-year truce, an idea that dates to the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

And yet, the two sides are talking, albeit indirectly.

Netanyahu, now Israel’s Prime Minister, has continued to emphasize that Israel sees Hamas as a force to be ostracized—in the same category as ISIS or Boko Haram, he told foreign reporters last week. Even the most pro-peace member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Tzipi Livni, said earlier this week that giving in to Hamas’ demands would be “a signal of weakness” that would only encourage yet another round of fighting. “Nobody can afford to send a message to Hamas that those who act with terror towards civilians can get what they want,” Livni told reporters.

Rhetoric aside, though, Israel has found itself faced with two basic choices, says Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the IDC Herzilya, a university near Tel Aviv. Either continue with its military campaign, with an eye toward toppling Hamas and possibly re-occupying Gaza—a move bound to engender intense international censure as well as soaring casualty counts—or negotiate with the very people Israel says no one should recognize as legitimate. Netanyahu, Spyer notes, has decided not to go the route of regime change by force, despite pressures from hard-liners to do so. As such, there is nothing to do but to negotiate over the terms.

“If Israel decides that it’s not going to try to destroy Hamas, [it] then [has] to deal with this semi-sovereign enclave between Israel and Egypt, and you end up with a situation of ongoing conflict with a neighboring entity: a situation of no peace but now war, or maybe a war of attrition,” Spyer tells TIME. To let the war drag on indefinitely, he notes, would also be seen in Israel as a failure.

“If the Israeli communities on the border of Gaza become ghost towns, then we have a de facto disengagement from the south of Israel, and I don’t think any Israeli prime minister wants that,” he said.

The majority of Israelis who live in communities that surround the Gaza border, which have borne the brunt of more than 3,500 rocket and mortars fired at them from Gaza over the past month, have been seeking shelter in the center and north of the country. If Netanyahu wants to make good on his pledge to “bring back quiet,” there is no way to get there without doing business with Hamas.

While some analysts commend Netanyahu’s decision to choose cease-fire talks over further military action, he has also come under criticism. Writing in the New York Times, military analyst Ronen Bregman argued that the war has done “significant damage” to Israel’s deterrence. “And as much as Israel is seeking to marginalize Hamas and empower the weakened Mr. [Mahmoud] Abbas, Hamas is, for the first time in its history, on the verge of being internationally recognized as an equal party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” Bregman writes.

Zvi Bar’el, a writer for the left-wing Haaretz daily newspaper, said Netanyahu’s policies have painted Israel into a corner, forcing it to negotiate with Hamas. “Israel’s insistence on viewing the Palestinian unity government as a ‘terrorist entity,’ or at the very least ‘a Hamas government,’ has actually trapped it, and once again forced it into negotiating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad while pushing Abbas into the position of an observer who is not authorized to sign an accord, should one be reached,” Bar’el writes. The end result will likely be to revive Hamas’ popularity, he predicts.

Mark Heller, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, says the international censure coming down on Israel has steered the country’s leadership away from rhetoric around destroying Hamas, choosing a negotiated solution instead. “Israel has the ability to reoccupy Gaza and destroy Hamas, if it’s willing to pay the price, but one of the prices is the lives of troops and Israel’s international standing,” Heller says. “As Hamas still has effective control of Gaza and decides whether or not there will be firing from Gaza, the only way to pursue the possibility of a cease-fire is to speak with them.”

The latest 72-hour truce, meanwhile, expires Wednesday night—and it’s far from certain that the gaps between the two sides will be bridged before then.

TIME

Baghdad Power Struggle Adds to Chaos in Iraq

Obama Meets With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki At White House
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki Olivier Douliery—Getty Images

Nouri al-Maliki is adding fuel to the fire in Iraq by refusing to make way for a new prime minister

For several months, the Obama Administration has made it clear that it wanted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside and make way for a more inclusive government, seen as a critical step to bringing Iraq back from the brink of disintegration along sectarian lines.

Now, in what is likely the biggest challenge yet to Iraq’s stability and integrity, the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) are capturing new territory in northern and central Iraq, sending thousands of Yazidis and Christians fleeing for their lives, and killing virtually any Shi’ite who stands in their path. Amidst this, Maliki is adding fuel to the fire and pulling the world’s attention back in the direction of Baghdad.

On Monday, Maliki defied calls to make way for Haidar al-Abadi as the country’s new prime minister, insisting that after two terms in the job, he is entitled to a third according to the Iraqi constitution. On Sunday, Maliki accused the country’s new president, Fouad Massoum, a Kurd elected by parliament, of carrying out “a coup against the constitution and the political process.” Maliki’s son-in-law Hussein al-Maliki told Reuters that the president’s decision to name Abadi as the new premier was “illegal”.

Upping the ante, Maliki has deployed his special forces and Shi’ite militias around Baghdad, suggesting he might use force to thwart any attempt to enforce the decision. The increased presence of forces in the capital takes place against the backdrop a recent string of car bombings aimed at Shi’ite neighborhoods, and indications that ISIS is looking for an opportunity to advance toward Baghdad.

Douglas Ollivant, a former Director for Iraq on the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama Administrations, suggests Maliki’s actions may be bluster. “We don’t know where Iran stands on this, but unless they back him on his bid to stay, I think he’s posturing—that’s what people do,” he says. “I think he knows that will really cross a red line for ‘peaceful retirement,’ which we presume is what he wants.”

Ollivant, now a Senior National Security Studies Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, spoke to TIME immediately after a press conference given by President Barack Obama late on Monday afternoon. “There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” Obama said. “The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government.” Obama also noted that he had “stepped up military advice and assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces as they wage the fight against ISIL,” another name for ISIS.

The key goals for now are essentially to contain ISIS, helping Kurdish forces to keep Islamic militants from reaching outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, where the US maintains a consulate. “I think the president has made it clear that that’s all he’ll do until a new government has been formed,” Ollivant adds.

But Abadi has up to a month to do so. What happens to Iraq in the meantime?

“If they try taking Erbil or something on the border with Jordan or Baghdad, the U.S. airpower will engage them. Essentially, the airpower is holding them off from going any further,” Ollivant says. “If they can get a representative government, I think they [the Obama Administration] would like to do an attack on ISIS in the mold of what happened in Libya, combining foreign airpower with local ground forces in a more concerted effort,” he said, referring to the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Today, of course, Libya is a nation in tatters. The Obama Administration had hoped to leave Iraq in a much more stable place when it pulled out the last U.S. troops later that year, in December, 2011. A chorus of critics blame Maliki for his hyper-sectarian campaign that alienated Sunnis—and may have even pushed some of them into the arms of ISIS. Now, ISIS also has American weaponry in its hands, left behind by retreating Iraqi government forces when the militants seized Mosul in June.

“The US has basically armed ISIS, because they take these weapons over and they know how to use them. And they are drawing support deep within the Islamic consciousness and the Sunni uprising,” says David Andelman, an Iraq expert and the editor of World Policy Journal in New York. “Obama came into office on the platform of, we’re closing down wars overseas: Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. He believed he made good on that pledge, and now he’s discovering he didn’t. They left so many loose ends, and now we’re going to have to go in and clean them up.”

All of which leaves the Obama Administration—and the Iraqis and Kurds who are keen for massive military backing sooner rather than later—in a difficult place. America wants no boots on the ground, and no one in the Iraqi government wants to be seen as inviting them back. But airstrikes have their limits, and may not be enough to stop ISIS from reaching just a little farther.

TIME

Hamas, Israel resume hostilities as Gaza cease-fire ends

Three-day cessation in fighting proves to be a temporary reprieve

The post-war aftermath was just beginning to be calculated by both Israelis and Palestinians. Surveyors were going out to assess the damage in devastated parts of Gaza. People started referring to the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the past tense.

But the reality is that the three-day ceasefire between the two sides, which expired on Friday morning, was only a temporary reprieve from a conflict that is not only unsolved, but, many fear, may be far from over. Palestinian militants in Gaza launched several mortars at Israel about two hours before the cease-fire ended, and then, as the 72-hour truce officially expired at 8 a.m., Hamas and other armed groups launched rockets at Israel, totaling about 40 by 2 p.m, according to the Israeli military. Two Israelis were seriously injured, one of them the director-general of the main college in southern Israel. The Israeli Air Force resumed airstrikes in Gaza, including one that killed a 10-year-old boy, according to local doctors.

Both Israel and Hamas see themselves as successful if not quite victorious in the past month of fighting, and assess that they have the strength and moral justification not to bend towards the other side’s demands. Hamas says it wants Israel to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip, allow for the opening of an airport and a seaport, and to release Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, in addition to several other demands. Israel says it will not promise to relax limits on access for raw materials to and from Gaza because this will only be used for replenishing Hamas’ arsenal, and perhaps, rebuilding tunnels. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calling for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip as part of any rebuilding plan, a suggestion that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups consider a non-starter.

“It’s very embarrassing for Hamas for a month-long war with such massive casualties and destruction to end without any achievements. They need to justify it, and if they stop without achievements at all, they will look ugly to the Palestinian public,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority and now the Vice President of Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah in the West Bank.

“So Hamas has to keep pressing to get something,” Khatib tells TIME. “But on the other hand, what they want from Israel is very difficult to get from Israel. And from Israel’s point of view, why should they give it? If Hamas got this many weapons under the siege, how about without a siege? The gap is very serious, and it needs mediation.”

That is the role that Egypt has sought to play, as it has in the past, after the last round of cease-fire efforts, negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, ended with the cease-fire’s collapse. Talks continued in Cairo on Friday between the various Palestinian factions and Egyptian security officials, but Israel pulled out of those talks when it became clear that Hamas and the other militant groups were holding fast on all of their demands. The militant groups also rejected a proposal to extend the cease-fire for another 72 hours, until Monday morning.

Future negotiations are likely to prove tricky. The fact that Hamas managed to hit Israel harder than ever before has led the militant group to dig in its heels, says Gazan political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada. Hamas killed 64 Israeli soldiers and fired upwards of 2,800 rockets—some of which were able to hit the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa—during the fighting. “Hamas feels it should get a much better deal in order to end the fighting,” Abusada told TIME.

Among the challenges in reaching an agreement to end the fighting, analysts note, is that whatever the Hamas political leadership says, its military wing is currently calling the shots. Known as the al-Qassam Bridgades, the military wing is led by a man named Mohammed Deif. “When Deif says that there will be no calm, let alone a truce, except with the total end to the blockade, then this means that he has the final word,” Abdel Bari Utwan, a London-based writer from Gaza, wrote in Rai al Youm, an online Arab news site.

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who has in the past facilitated back-channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas, says that the sides are still far part. Hamas’ bottom line for stopping its rocket fire is far away from what Israel is prepared to give to a group it considers a terrorist organization.

“There will be changes in Israel’s isolation of Gaza policy after the war, but they won’t even get near to what Hamas is demanding,” Baskin says. Baskin, who was involved in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, now says that Israel’s best bet may be to go over Hamas’ head altogether.

“The way out is to circumvent Hamas by going directly to the core issues in a regional framework—with the Arab Peace Initiative, with Saudi engagement, regional security plans—appealing to the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank that the intention really is to end the occupation, sooner not later,” he tells TIME. That must come as a package deal, he says, including ending Gaza’s isolation, rebuilding the impoverished coastal strip and bringing about stability.

TIME Israel

Cease-Fire Gives Israel, Gaza Time to Assess the Damage

Palestinians walk amid the ruins of destroyed homes in the Shujayeh neighborhood, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during an Israeli offensive, east of Gaza City, Aug. 6, 2014.
Palestinians walk amid the ruins of destroyed homes in the Shujayeh neighborhood, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during an Israeli offensive, east of Gaza City, Aug. 6, 2014. Finbarr O'Reilly—Reuters

Gaza officials say it's far too early to know the exact cost of the damage, while Israel estimates the operation cost it about $2 billion

Parts of Gaza, even to the people who lived there only days or weeks ago, are barely recognizable. Palestinians who fled neighborhoods like Shujayeh, Beit Hanoun and Rafah are having difficulty finding where their homes once stood, says Issam Younis, director of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. Those parts of the Gaza Strip — from which the Israeli military says it came under fire by Hamas militants — have seen the heaviest bombardments from Israel.

“It’s almost like a tsunami has hit the region. For some people, to know where your house is, or was, is impossible because the road isn’t even there anymore,” Younis tells TIME. He estimates only 20% to 30% of the people who evacuated their homes during the fighting, or were otherwise displaced, have livable homes to which they can return. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency says 187,000 people are living in its shelters. And only in the past 48 hours have outside agencies, like the U.N. Development Programme, been able to go out and survey the damage.

“To be honest, nobody has a clear-cut figure of what the damages are because we did not have access to these areas until Tuesday,” Younis adds. “It’s a level of unprecedented destruction that we have not been able to fully calculate yet.”

Based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority has been trying to do just that — calculate the destruction. It has kept a running tally not just of the death toll (which now stands at 1,886) but of every building that Israeli forces have hit in the nearly four weeks of fighting, now on pause after a cease-fire agreement.

The list the PA provided Wednesday reads like a major earthquake hit Gaza: Demolished structures: 5,930. Partially demolished structures: 4,820. Damaged homes: 32,150. Damaged hospitals and health centers: 17 hospitals and 7 public-health clinics. (The Israel Defense Forces says that in at least one case, Islamic jihad rockets aimed at Israel fell short of their target and landed next to Gaza’s Shifa Hospital and the Shati Refugee Camp killing at least 10 Palestinians; the IDF has disputed other incidents which it says it’s investigating.)

Factor in the major infrastructure that has been damaged in Gaza over the past few weeks, including water and sewage systems, electricity lines and roads, and the figure for rehabilitation could total somewhere around $6 billion, according to PA Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa. However, Dana Erekat, the PA’s head of aid management for the Ministry of Planning, says it’s too early to give an accurate estimate of rebuilding costs. The focal point person for a technical committee made up of different PA ministries, Erekat says the PA is working on an early recovery plan, then a phase of rebuilding and, finally, redevelopment.

“This is really the day after, where we’re looking at immediate needs, like finding shelter for people who are homeless and figuring out exactly how many structures were damaged,” Erekat told TIME. “A very high-level, preliminary assessment will be ready by early September.”

Rather than contracting out any of the rebuilding to international firms, Erekat added, “we’re looking at the process to be fully owned by the government.” In other words, not only is it crucial for the shattered parts of Gaza to be rebuilt, but the very process could pave the way for re-involving the PA, led by the secular Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the everyday lives of Gaza residents. Officials and security forces connected to Fatah were forced from Gaza in a violent coup seven years ago organized by Hamas. The PA’s presence has been almost invisible there since — PA President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t visited the territory since before 2007, although Fatah formed a unity government with Hamas on June 2 this year.

At a press conference Wednesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was “cooperating with the Palestinian Authority … and [we] are prepared to see a role for them [in Gaza].”

Destruction in Gaza
A Palestinian sits on a salvaged sofa outside his destroyed home in the Shujayeh neighborhood, east of Gaza City, Aug. 6, 2014. Oliver Weiken—EPA

While cease-fire talks in Cairo continue, the parties announced late Wednesday that they had agreed to extend an ongoing but temporary truce for an additional 72 hours, meaning it would expire next Monday. People on both sides of the conflict seem more than relieved. For Israelis, the truce has brought a sense of calm after almost a month of running for shelter from the nearly 2,700 rockets and mortars launched from Gaza since July 8. And for the Israeli government, the damages and compensation costs of Operation Protective Edge are likely to add up about $2 billion, the Haaretz newspaper reported, quoting an Israeli tax authority official. Israel also lost 64 soldiers in the fighting, as well as three civilians to rocket attacks.

For Gazans, however, life has changed radically and perhaps irreversibly, even for those whose homes are almost intact. Younis, for example, says he’s had one hour of electricity in the last three days. No electricity means no plumbing and no elevator, so he needs to carry jugs of water up the stairs to his fifth-floor apartment — water that he’s not even sure is clean enough to drink. When he manages to buy some diesel fuel, he powers up a small generator, which his family can use to watch television news.

“No electricity means we don’t use the refrigerator, so we must go out and buy our food day by day, and must wash our clothes by hand because there’s no electricity for the washer,” Younis says.

Younis’ three youngest children, ages 12 to 17, have ceased being regular teens. They will only sleep in the room with their parents.

“They’re scared. They ask when will we be bombarded again,” Younis says. “I’m trying to make them secure, but it’s difficult. All of Gaza is in post-trauma now.”

The biggest fear of all: not knowing whether it’s really over.

TIME Middle East

If the Gaza Truce Holds, What Then? 5 Possible Outcomes

An Israeli soldier sits in an armored personnel carrier flying the Israeli flag as they return from the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip after pulling out of the Palestinian enclave on August 4, 2014 as Israel has begun withdrawing some ground troops.
An Israeli soldier sits in an armored personnel carrier flying the Israeli flag as they return from the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip after pulling out of the Palestinian enclave on Aug. 4, 2014, as Israel has begun withdrawing some ground troops. Gil Cohen Magen—AFP/Getty Images

How Operation Protective Edge might end — or carry on interminably

Egypt announced that Palestinian factions declared a 72-hour cease-fire to begin on Tuesday at 8 a.m. Israel sat out of the Cairo talks that produced the humanitarian truce but said it would hold by the cease-fire, a government spokesman told TIME.

Whether or not the parties actually make it through a full three days with no air strikes or rocket attacks remains to be seen. Every other cease-fire effort undertaken since the escalation in early July has failed. But there is a more pressing question: What now? Who and what can put an end to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza — with 1,865 Palestinians and 67 Israelis killed so far – and also propose a longer-term solution?

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister, on Monday offered a new idea for solving the Gaza problem: let the U.N. take control of the long-troubled territory. “Everyone is asking, What happens after the operation ends? Suppose Israel defeats Hamas. There are a few options. International control of Gaza, by the U.N., should certainly be considered,” Lieberman said at a press conference. This has been tried in other war-torn locales, from Kosovo to East Timor. Why not Gaza?

Well, for one thing, it would be an enormous and expensive undertaking for the international community to take responsibility for Gaza. It would also require Hamas and other militant groups to agree to participate in such a scheme, which is difficult to imagine given that they’ve built their entire identities around what they view as legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation. Still, many of the key players here say that almost a month into the bloodiest phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the second intifadeh, some significant change must emerge at the end of it. TIME looks at five possibilities for how this could end:

  1. Send in the U.N. This would involve what’s been referred to as mini–Marshall Plan, including a massive rebuilding program that would help Gaza pick up the pieces. The task would be huge: electricity and water supplies have been compromised, and an estimated 10,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged. Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli Defense Minister and IDF chief, has proposed some specifics. These include having the international community oversee the demilitarization of Gaza — a goal recently endorsed by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, but opposed by Hamas — and approximately $50 billion for rebuilding. E.U. foreign ministers issued a joint statement July 23 backing demilitarization.
  1. Bring the PA back to Gaza: Israel and Hamas will eventually be brought into some kind of proximity talks under an umbrella of Egyptian sponsorship, and the outcome of those discussions would likely involve the return of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces to Gaza, casting them in a key role as guardians of the crossing points into Israel and Egypt — along with international help. The PA, run by the PLO’s secular Fatah faction, was forced out of Gaza in 2007 as part of a violent coup staged by Hamas, whose name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Bringing a PA political and security presence back to Gaza would help beef up the legitimacy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As part of such an arrangement, Israel would likely demand a joint patrolling mechanism on the Gaza perimeter to prevent infiltrations and renewed attempts to rebuild tunnels, more than 30 of which the IDF says it has destroyed. However, the rockets from Gaza did not start when Israel pulled its troops and 8,000 settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but rather, Israel points out, in 2001. Therefore, Israel is likely to refuse any agreement that doesn’t include a mechanism for preventing Hamas from rebuilding its rocket arsenal. The fact that Hamas and Fatah joined in a “reconciliation” government in April makes this form of cooperation more feasible than it was even a year ago.
  1. A 10-year truce: Almost two weeks ago, Hamas offered Israel a 10-year hudna, or Arabic truce. Its terms include — but are not limited to — the following: 1) the release of approximately 50 Palestinian prisoners who, after being released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal in late 2011, were re-arrested by the IDF in June following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, 2) the opening of the border crossings with both Israel and Egypt, 3) international supervision of the Gazan seaport instead of the Israeli naval blockade, as well as extended fishing rights to 10 km off the coast of Gaza, 4) an international airport under U.N. supervision, and 5) international forces on the borders of Gaza. Even if Israeli officials were prepared to accept all of that — which would be unlikely — they have said that the very concept of a hudna, a concept rooted in Islamic history, is problematic because it suggests Hamas only believes in a limited period of calm with the Jewish state but refuses a more permanent solution because it seeks its destruction.
  1. Possible reoccupation of the Gaza Strip: This is an option that is often mentioned by Israel’s far right, including some members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Coalition partner Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Economy, said last week that Israel should continue its military operating until Hamas is completely defeated. Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, had suggested in late June that Israel reoccupy Gaza, saying only that would stop the rockets. Ultimately, Netanyahu appears to have rejected these calls, realizing that such a move would likely cause far more bloodshed and further rattle Israel’s already compromised international legitimacy.
  1. Indefinite war: In this scenario, Israel withdraws its troops and tanks from Gaza, but continues to use air and naval strikes as it sees fit. Hamas stays in power and launches rockets at Israel whenever it pleases, and essentially, nothing substantial changes from how things looked a month ago — other than a great number of destroyed buildings and upwards of 2,000 lives lost. If the parties cannot agree on a cease-fire deal that feels satisfactory, Operation Protective Edge could simmer down into a indeterminate cycle of occasional attacks, robbing both Israelis and Palestinians of a return to normal life. Some are hoping that the right cease-fire deal is just around the corner, and some are wishing their leaders will keep holding out for more. But the possibility of a low-level war of attrition, lasting years and costing yet more lives, is not remote.
TIME Middle East

Israel Seeks to Gain Advantage by Reversing Course in Gaza

ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT
Israeli soldiers fold their equipment along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip after they pulled out from the Gaza Strip on Aug. 3, 2014 Gil Cohen Magen—AFP/Getty Images

Walking away from a cease-fire deprives Hamas of a PR victory, and leaves Israel with options on how to proceed

The war continues and there is no victor, but Israel is gradually pulling most of its troops out of the Gaza Strip in a sign that in the course of a weekend, it decided to take a completely different tack in its war with Hamas.

After four attempts at a humanitarian cease-fire over the past few weeks, including a much vaunted one Friday that was supposed to last for 72 hours but instead collapsed after two, Israel decided that it was no longer pursuing a truce with Hamas. Instead, it opted for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, save a new buffer zone it is carving out along the border, in the belief that there was more to be gained from walking away from what had begun to seem like a merry-go-round of failed cease-fires.

On the one hand, the decision is a stunning reversal from what many had begun to expect from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose more hawkish Cabinet members have been calling for a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. On the other, the decision to pull back ground troops while declaring, as Netanyahu did Saturday, that the operation continues, is a formula for the blood-soaked Israel-Hamas war to plod on while the world watches the death toll in Gaza rise and international diplomats grow increasingly befuddled by the question of what to propose next.

That bloodshed may have been part of Israel’s equation. Amos Yadlin, a retired major general of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, told reporters Sunday that he thought reversing course was a wise move on the part of Netanyahu, as Israel faces growing international censure for its actions in Gaza. The Palestinian death toll now tops 1,800, according to its Ministry of Health, and on Sunday, Israel’s shelling of a U.N. school was vociferously condemned by the U.S. after 10 Palestinians were killed. It was the seventh incident of a school used as a shelter coming under attack, according to UNRWA.

The move also serves to deprive Hamas of the victory it has sought since the war began July 8. “We neutralize their main strategic forces, and leave them alone, without any achievement, without any demand, in their devastated place called Gaza,” Yadlin said. The change of tack is a “sophisticated, smart move,” he added, at least for the time being. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable for the long run. But we will have to see how Hamas will react, what kind of fire they will continue to use, and if we can live with it.”

It also gives Israel options on how to proceed. The mind-set goes that previous negotiated cease-fires, like the one that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, served to “hamper” the IDF by limiting how it could respond. By unilaterally pulling troops out of Gaza — while declaring the key goals of the ground operation complete, including having destroyed some 30-odd tunnels — Israel believes it has gained the freedom to act as it sees fit.

“So if we want to proceed, we proceed. If we want to stop, we stop. If we want to initiate something else, we will initiate something else,” says Udi Dekel, a retired brigadier general, also of the INSS. “If Hamas continues to fire, we can fire. If we see any activity in the security perimeter, like digging another tunnel, we can attack them, because there is not any understanding or agreement between us and Hamas. So we keep all the possibilities in our hands.”

Hamas, for its part, says Israel will have no calm unless it negotiates the terms of a cease-fire. Among Hamas’ main goals is the lifting of an embargo on Gaza designed to squelch the economy and prevent Hamas from functioning. Many Palestinians argue this has turned Gaza into an open-air prison, while Israel argues that when it’s been lax in the past, Hamas has used the opportunity to build tunnels and bunkers.

Alongside its unilateral about-face in Gaza, Israel refused over the weekend to attend the cease-fire talks in Cairo as planned, calling the truce efforts futile. Israel says that Hamas broke one cease-fire too many, while Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal told CNN on Saturday that it never agreed to let the IDF keep operating in Gaza during the truce, which it sees Israel having broken.

But there may be more to Israel shunning the talks than simply wanting to refuse to play ball with Hamas any further. Political scientist Yoram Meital notes that as Israel’s goals in the operation moved over the course of the few weeks — from rockets to tunnels to demilitarization of Gaza — the latter became the buzzword. The Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the E.U. and the Obama Administration said demilitarization would indeed be a good idea, but it would need to take place in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.

“This is of course a very different perspective from Netanyahu’s view,” says Meital, a Ben Gurion University professor who specializes in Israel’s relationship with Egypt and the Palestinians. “While demilitarization is a very legitimate objective, Netanyahu is not ready to pay the price for this commodity. He understands perfectly well that by discussing this as part of the peace process, one of the meanings is that after several years, the Gaza Strip and West Bank would be discussed as one unified Palestinian territorial unit.” That, he notes, is the last thing the Israeli right wing wants.

So now the “new phase” of the conflict has begun. Columns of IDF tanks were seen cutting through the dust of Gaza’s outskirts and pulling out toward Israel Sunday, but the IDF’s air strikes on Gaza continued. The IDF said rocket fire continued over Tel Aviv, and in southern Israel. Israelis meanwhile, turned their attention to the dramatic end of what they had been told on Friday was the Hamas capture of IDF soldier Hadar Goldin. On Saturday night, Goldin was declared dead based on forensic evidence collected at the scene, and on Sunday he was buried before a crowd of thousands. Among them was his cousin — Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon.

TIME Israel

Gaza’s Future Unclear After Cease-Fire Ends Just Hours After it Began

A Palestinian family from Gaza Strip's central Bureij refugee camp drives back to their district during the first hours of a failed truce on August 1, 2014.
A Palestinian family from Gaza Strip's central Bureij refugee camp drives back to their district during the first hours of a failed truce on August 1, 2014. Marco Longari—AFP/Getty Images

The future of Israel's war in Gaza is uncertain after a cease-fire ended hours after it began and an Israeli soldier was said to be captured

The optimists in this part of the world went to sleep last night feeling vaguely hopeful, or at least relieved. The pessimists woke up and said, “I told you so.”

The 72-hour cease-fire announced by the United Nations and United States around midnight Thursday local time was supposed to go into effect Friday morning at 8 a.m. About an hour and a half later, the Israeli military says, soldiers who were at work dismantling a tunnel in Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, came under attack. Two Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber and one was captured.

Hamas, however, says the incident happened just before the cease-fire went into effect.

Israel named the soldier as 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, and soon after his name was released he became a Twitter hashtag as well as the subject of at least three Facebook pages calling for him to come home safely. It is exactly the kind of build-up that Hamas likely hopes for, as its stated goal is repeating the pattern it established when it secured the 2011 release of 1,026 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli: Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in an June 2006 infiltration attack inside Israel.

The capture of an IDF soldier has been the event that Israel feared Hamas had been gunning for, knowing that Hamas sees soldiers as bargaining chips for more Palestinian prisoners and increased popularity. Over 5,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails, some having been convicted and others held as “administrative detainees.”

The brazen attack is by Israeli accounts the fourth time since this war started on July 8 that Hamas and other Palestinian militants groups in Gaza has broken or rejected a truce. The incident seems likely to open the doors for yet more intensive bombardments from the Israeli military — following the attack, the IDF pounded the area with artillery, killing 40 Palestinians.

An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014.
An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014. Jack Guez—AFP/Getty Images

The cease-fire violation and ensuing violence derailed plans for talks on a more prolonged peace, which were to be held in Cairo on Friday. But the Israeli soldier’s capture only underscores how differently the two sides see the ongoing conflict. Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal hailed the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in mid-June – even though it turns out that was executed by an independent cell of Hamas-inspired militants acting on their own. Hamas has tried capturing soldiers during other recent infiltration attacks as well — Israeli soldiers have found handcuffs, tranquilizers and syringes in captured militant tunnels.

But from Israel’s point of view, there’s little chance of an agreement to exchange prisoners for another captured soldier.

“We are in the middle of a war,” said Ephraim Kam, an expert in strategic intelligence at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, as well as a retired IDF colonel. “I assume that Israel will continue as if it had not happened. I’m doubtful that we will repeat the exchange that happened with Gilad Shalit.”

Kam added that Israeli public opinion has particularly been colored on this issue by a recent incident of recidivism: a Hamas operative who was released as part of the Shalit deal was found by Israel to be responsible for shooting and killing an off-duty police officer in April.

“As a result, it will be much more difficult than ever before,” for Hamas to get the prisoners it expects to in exchange for one live soldier, Kam says.

Gershon Baskin is among those who helped forge a backchannel between Israel and Hamas to get the two sides to negotiate over Shalit’s release. Baskin, a peace activist and the co-founder of the Israel/Palestinian Center for Research and Information, maintains contacts in the political wing of Hamas. He tells TIME he communicated to Hamas three weeks ago his belief that the group would not be able to stage a repeat of the Shalit deal because too many factors had changed.

“I told them that the idea that Israel will negotiate and agree to a ratio of 1:1,000, that time is over and it won’t happen again,” Baskin said. “The scenario in which we already have 40,000 soldiers in Gaza and another 14,000 being called up tells me Israel isn’t leaving without the soldier, dead or alive.”

Baskin predicts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, which will meet late Friday, may decide on a total conquest of the whole southern Gaza Strip around Rafah, both in search of the missing soldier and in looking for more tunnel entrances.

“Whatever happens, Hamas will win in their definition, because they have a different kind of rationale,” Baskin said.

Smoke and flames are seen following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014.
Smoke and flames are seen following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa—Reuters

Indeed, the Palestinian version of events is significantly different than the Israeli one. Not only did the soldier’s capture happen before the end of the cease-fire, some Palestinian leaders argue, but Hamas officials also accuse Israel of breaking the cease-fire first.

“There is no justification for Israel to violate the truce as the officer was captured and the two soldiers were killed ahead of the truce,” senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq told the Anadolu News Agency, a Turkish newswire. Marzouq said the troops were only responding to “Israeli aggression.” In a press release, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel made the claim of Hamas violating the cease-fire to “cover up a massacre” in Rafah.

It was never clear exactly how the cease-fire agreement would stick for three days even while Israeli troops are operating in Gaza. Netanyahu said Israel would work at destroying tunnels with or without a cease-fire, and the truce indicated that Israeli forces would stay in Gaza but not attack Palestinians. Israel read this as permission to continue destroying tunnels. However, Hamas says it treats any Israelis efforts against infrastructure as an act of aggression and would, in the words of Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan speaking in Beirut, act accordingly in self-defense, according to Israeli radio.

Hamdan also said that he has no knowledge of a captured soldier, possibly pointing to an old pattern that has been noted by Hamas observers before: a gap between what the political wing says and what the military wing does.

TIME Gaza

A U.N. School Is No Refuge as the War Worsens in Gaza

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA
Palestinian civilians wounded during Israeli shelling of a U.N. school wait at the Kamal Odwan Hospital in northern Gaza Strip on July 30, 2014 Marco Longari—AFP/Getty Images

A strike on a U.N. school being used as a refuge in Gaza leaves 15 people dead, and puts more international pressure on Israel

Seventeen times, officials from the U.N. called their contacts in the Israeli army to give them the exact GPS coordinates of a U.N. school in the Jabalya Refugee Camp. “There was fighting very close by and the staff there was very alarmed,” Christopher Gunness, the spokesman of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which works with Palestinian refugees, tells TIME. “We told them what the precise coordinates were.”

Despite the worried calls, the Jabalya Elementary Girls School was hit just after the early morning call to prayer Wednesday, when most of the 3,000 people taking shelter there were asleep. A few minutes later, the school was hit by a second explosion, in which a shell or a rocket crashed through the roof of the building. Fifteen people were killed and more than 100 injured.

However it happened, the devastating attack of the U.N. school seems such an egregious example of killing innocent civilians that it could be a turning point in the three-week-old war between Israel and Hamas that senior U.S., European and Middle Eastern officials have so far failed to halt. Strong condemnations have come in from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called the strike “unjustifiable,” as well as from the White House. It is the second time over the past several days that a U.N. school has been hit, and the sixth such incident since the war began.

The refugees at Jabalya “are people who were told to leave their homes by the IDF,” Gunness says. As a result, there are 200,000 Gazans around the Strip living in 85 shelters, leaving UNRWA and other aid agencies struggling to provide for their most basic needs. That includes water, which is trucked in because most of the tap water in Gaza is undrinkable even during peacetime. “We can’t offer safe sanctuary. We ask people to respect the inviolability of our offices.” Earlier in the day, Gunness tweeted: “UNRWA condemns in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.”

Israeli forces, however, have not taken responsibility for the attack on the school. As it did after fiery destruction of a power plant a day earlier, which seemed to indicate Israel was not just striking military targets but also the kind of basic civilian infrastructure that could permanently affect the more than 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip, the IDF said it was checking the incident and could not confirm who had hit the school.

“We don’t target U.N. facilities in any way, shape or form,” Lieut. Colonel Peter Lerner tells TIME. He describes the IDF’s version of events: “In the early hours of the morning, there was mortar fire launched from the vicinity of the school and there was an exchange of fire there. In the aftermath of that, there was a report of deaths in the school. We are reviewing this incident.”

Lerner says that in the past few days, there have been “several attempts by Hamas to pin on Israel launches from the Gaza Strip” that didn’t go as planned, landing on civilians instead of in Israel. “There are two cases in which we are aware of — the Beach Camp [Shati] and the attack on Shifa Hospital — which were the result of rockets that were definitely launched in Gaza.” As for UNRWA’s 17 distressed calls to the Israeli army, Lerner said that the location of the U.N. schools was not the issue. “We know where their schools are, as well as shelters and warehouses, and we have an ongoing relationship with their offices in Gaza to facilitate their humanitarian work on the ground. In fact, the humanitarian cease-fire today was to enable their ongoing activities.”

That cease-fire — though a four-hour lull or pause would be a more precise description — was declared by Israel in part because of U.N. requests, ostensibly to allow emergency workers to go out into the field and to remove bodies from the ruins. Hamas, for its part, has refused to participate in any cease-fires unilaterally declared by Israel, and continued launching several rockets even during the cease-fire, adding to the more than 2,670 that have been fired since July 7. During this so-called lull, Israeli warplanes struck a crowded market in Shujaiyeh, killing 15 people. Shujaiyeh, an area in the eastern part of Gaza City, has witnessed the heaviest bombardment by the IDF since it began its ground operation, with many of the buildings reduced to ruins.

At the Kamal Odwan Hospital in northern Gaza Strip, Said Sulaiman sits over the bed of his son Rezeq, who was seriously wounded by shrapnel at the U.N. School in Jabalya. As instructed by the Israeli army, two weeks ago they decided to flee their house in Atattra, near Beit Lahia — an agricultural area that in the past has been used by Hamas and other militants for launching rockets — and came to seek shelter at the U.N. school.

“I came to the school in search of a safe place. My family is still in the school while I am here, and I hope no strikes will happen while I am away,” says Sulaiman, 55. “We are waiting here in the room until the operation room is ready to take him into surgery. I hope they won’t have to amputate his leg. I just want to return to my house with my family safe after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and for the aggression to stop.”

A more lasting cease-fire still seems elusive, however. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet agreed Wednesday night to intensify attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza and to keep destroying tunnels. The night before, Mohammed Deif, the head of al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said that only Israel lifting its blockade of Gaza would be enough for the militant group to agree to a cease-fire.

A Hamas-made video released on the same night, showing militants infiltrating Israel via a tunnel, successfully ambushing and killing five Israeli soldiers near Nahal Oz, has only confirmed for the government that the tunnels still pose a danger, encouraging the government to continue the fight. A poll released Tuesday found that 90% of Israeli Jews think the IDF operation in Gaza is justified. The survey, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, indicated that most expected the war to continue.

The Palestinian Ministry of Healthy put the death toll Wednesday at 1,361; Israel has lost 58 soldiers and three civilians. Israeli officials blame Hamas for many of the civilian deaths, repeatedly accusing the militant group of shooting from within populated areas, including residential buildings and hospital. Netanyahu himself has charged Hamas with regularly using human shields, purposefully putting people in harm’s way. That means Israel’s soldiers and pilots have to either have to retreat from their targets or shoot anyway, knowing that civilians will be killed in the process.

Gunness counters that on three occasions, including one this week, rocket caches have been discovered in U.N. schools, but noted that these were empty, out-of-use structures undergoing maintenance — not buildings housing refugees.

“On these separate occasions, [rockets] were found in schools that have been closed for the summer and which were being inspected by UNRWA,” Gunness says. “We condemned the groups that put them there as a flagrant violation of the sanctity and neutrality of the U.N., we immediately notified all relevant parties, and we have never handed them over to Hamas.” The dispute over who hit the U.N. school continues, but the day’s grim images make one fact indisputable: there are no safe havens in Gaza.

— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza City

TIME Middle East

Israel’s Operation in Gaza Spreads Beyond Just Tunnels

The collapsed minaret of mosque seen from the destroyed living room of a Palestinian family in a building across the street in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014.
The collapsed minaret of mosque seen from the destroyed living room of a Palestinian family in a building across the street in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014. Oliver Weiken—EPA

The Israeli Defense Forces now have Gaza's infrastructure in their sights

Updated July 30, 6:06 a.m. ET

Israeli officials have said in the past week that their main goal in the war against Hamas in Gaza is to destroy as many of what it calls “terror tunnels,” the underground passages built by the militant group that have repeatedly been used to infiltrate Israel. But following a day in which Hamas militants managed to kill 10 Israeli soldiers, Israel responded Tuesday with massive air strikes that seemed aimed at both major infrastructure as well as the visible symbols of Hamas’s power in the Gaza Strip.

In overnight strikes on Monday by aircraft, tanks and navy gunboats, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked 150 targets in Gaza, including the home and office of Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh’s home, the influential Shujaiyeh battalion commander’s home and the Ministry of Finance, as well as al-Aqsa Radio and al-Aqsa Television, two media outlets operated by Hamas. The IDF said it attacked two Hamas command centers and four weapons-storage sites hidden inside mosques and a tunnel Tuesday, before targeting five mosques overnight where it said Hamas had hidden weapons.

Most prominently, it struck Gaza’s main power plant, all but destroying it. “The plant wasn’t working fully in the past few months due to shortages of fuel that comes from Israel,” Rafeeq Abu Maliha, the plant’s director, told reporters. “Three days ago Israel started to hit the station. The first time one missile hit the water and cooling engine. The second air strike they hit the administration building. Last night’s strike was on [a] streaming engine, and in the morning today the tanks of fuel were hit and caused a huge fire in the station.” Gaza has been suffering from severe shortages of power for years,” he said, and many areas of the power plant hit over the course of the war were not currently repairable because of “access difficulties.”

Israel renewed intense airstrikes on Gaza
A Palestinian man walks in front of a fire raging at Gaza’s main power plant on July 29, 2014, in Gaza City, following an overnight Israeli air strike Oliver Weiken—EPA

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces denied the power station had been on Israel’s hit-list. “The power plant definitely was not a target,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner tells TIME. “We checked with all the forces in the area, air, ground and naval, and we’ve not been able to determine that the IDF has carried out this strike. It could be a Palestinian mortar hit it – we don’t know.” He said the IDF was “looking into” the incident.

Tunnels and rockets are easy for Israel to explain as military targets — both directly threaten Israeli citizens. But if it did intentionally hit the power plant, as well as government and communications buildings, it might indicate that Israel is taking its Operation Protective Edge to a far more punishing level — a move some more conservative members in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have long advocated. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the influential Jewish Home party on Tuesday said that simply destroying Hamas’ tunnel network isn’t enough, and called on Israel to continue the operation until Hamas loses control. “Hit Hamas without mercy,” Bennett said. “Day and night. On weekdays and holidays. Without respite and without rest. Until they are defeated.”

Whether or not the more conservative Bennett represents the mainstream thinking of the Israeli government, he’s been able to repeatedly make strong statements without a public reprimand from Netanyahu. What seems clear is that the Israeli government and the top political brass fall into two camps: those who see the war ending with the goal of deterrence — hurting Hamas’ military capabilities and making them think twice before launching another rocket once a meaningful cease-fire is actually reached — and those who are gunning for destruction, whether by bringing Hamas to its knees or by managing to overthrow it altogether.

But Talal Okal, an independent Palestinian analyst who lives in Gaza, argues that an extended bombing campaign would be unlikely to topple Hamas. On the contrary, the destruction being broadcast from Gaza will only underscore the need for the kind of international rebuilding efforts that can only be achieved by lifting the embargo on the strip — which happens to be a main demand of Hamas. “I don’t think the Israeli targeting of infrastructure will push Hamas to collapse, but it will be an extra reason to insist to make removing the siege that was imposed seven years ago,” he says. “Everyone suffers from it, Hamas people and ordinary Gazans.

“But at the same time it might push the people to trend more toward finding a political solution soon, as the war is more tiring by the day. I think people are actually supporting Hamas more than in previous wars as there are dead [Israeli] soldiers” for Hamas to point to as a tangible achievement, he explains. “The loss is not only in Gaza but also in Israel, so that would make the people here able to survive and stand more.”

No one doubts that the conditions in Gaza have become extreme. The loss of electricity is causing water shortages and sanitation challenges. The electricity lines along the main street of Gaza City are down entirely, as well as in frontline areas like Shujaiya, Beit Hanoun, Zaitoun and the east of Khan Younis. With no electricity available to charge phones and with many land lines cut by IDF strikes, it is becoming hard for many Gazans to so much as place a phone call to check on a relative or call an ambulance in the event of an emergency.

“Since last night we have been hearing shelling and bombs in the area of the plant, and we’ve had no electricity for three days now,” says Yasser Bakheet, 28, a resident of Nussirat, a neighborhood near the power plant. As much as a missile strike, he now fears an ongoing humanitarian disaster and the outbreak of disease in Gaza. “I don’t care about politics,” he says. “What I care about now is to live normally or at least get the basic needs for me and my family.”

Late Tuesday, the latest diplomatic efforts raised hopes that a cease-fire could be on the horizon. But Mohammed Deif, the head of al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said in broadcast comments that there would be no truce in Gaza unless Israel lifts its “siege.” Fighting continued overnight, with a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp attacked and at least 15 Palestinians killed. Tuesday was the deadliest day in the conflict so far, a Gaza health official told the AP. A war that was billed as an operation to halt Hamas rocket fire seems no closer to resolution than when it started three weeks ago.

— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza City

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