How Israel torpedoed its ceasefire with Hamas

to produce a casus belli


“Success is freeing the civilian population of southern Israel from the fear of an incoming Hamas rocket.” [1]


Those were the words of Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, in an interview with David Fuller on More4 News on 9 January 2009, two weeks into Israel’s assault on Gaza.


By 9 January, Israeli forces had killed nearly a thousand Palestinians, ostensibly to achieve this success, but rockets were still being fired out of Gaza into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian groups – and continued to be fired after Israel halted the assault ten days later.


In fact, Israel had achieved the success of “freeing the civilian population of southern Israel from the fear of an incoming Hamas rocket” months earlier.  It did so, not by taking military action against Hamas, but by negotiating a ceasefire agreement with it in June 2008.


Under the agreement, brokered by Egypt, in exchange for Hamas and other Palestinian groups stopping the firing of rockets and mortars out of Gaza, Israel undertook to lift its economic blockade of Gaza and cease military incursions into Gaza.  The ceasefire was to be for six months initially, but, if successful, it was to be renewed and to apply to the West Bank as well. 


What is more, Hamas stuck rigidly to the ceasefire agreement, and fired no rockets or mortars out of Gaza into Israel from 19 June, when the ceasefire came into operation, until 4 November.  Other Palestinian groups fired a small number, despite being restrained by Hamas.  As a partner for peace, Hamas could not be faulted – it made a deal with Israel and stuck to it.


Mark Regev confirmed the ceasefire’s “success” on More4 News on 9 January.  When David Fuller put to him that “there were no Hamas rockets during the ceasefire before November the 4th, there were no Hamas rockets for 4 months”, Regev replied: “That’s correct”.


How did the success evaporate?

So, how did the success of “freeing the civilian population of southern Israel from the fear of an incoming Hamas rocket” from June to November evaporate?  Answer: on 4 November 2008, Israel took action that caused it to evaporate.  Israel broke the terms of the ceasefire agreement by making a military incursion into Gaza and killing 7 members of Hamas.  This was the first military incursion into Gaza since the ceasefire began on 19 June.


Israel had now breached both of its obligations under the ceasefire agreement, having already failed to lift the economic blockade of Gaza as promised.  In retaliation, Hamas resumed rocket and mortar fire out of Gaza into Israel.


There is no doubt that the Israeli government knew (a) that the military incursion into Gaza on 4 November would mean that the civilian population of southern Israel would no longer be free from Hamas rockets, and (b) that, if it continued to refrain from military incursions into Gaza, as it had done from 19 June, the civilian population of southern Israel would be free from Hamas rockets indefinitely.  In other words, it chose course (a) in the full knowledge that civilians in southern Israel would be less safe.


Providing justification

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Israel made this choice, because it wanted a justification that could be sold to the world for launching the military assault on Gaza that began on 27 December.  The assault could not have been launched before 4 November, when the civilian population of southern Israel were free from Hamas rockets.  To justify a ferocious military assault in the name of “freeing the civilian population of southern Israel from the fear of an incoming Hamas rocket”, there had to be some.  Is there any doubt that Israel chose course (a) in order to provide some?


David Fuller put it to Mark Regev that “the civilians of southern Israel are less safe now than before you started operations”.  Regev replied:


“The civilians of southern Israel fully support this operation and you know why: because they’ve been living under the threat of incoming Hamas rockets, not for days, not for weeks, but for months, but for years.  We’re trying to create a new security environment in which they no longer have to live in constant fear of an incoming Hamas rocket.”


That omits the very important fact that, for four and a half months from June to November 2008, the civilians of southern Israel were NOT living under the threat of incoming Hamas rockets, and that, if Israel had refrained from making a military incursion into Gaza on 4 November, they would have continued to be free from the threat of incoming Hamas rockets.


Tzipi Livni’s big lie

The Israeli town of Sderot, situated about a kilometre from the north-east corner of Gaza, has been the target for many of the rockets fired out of Gaza.  The Israeli authorities brought many visitors, including Barack Obama, the future US President, to Sderot to see the damage done by these rockets and to bolster their case for taking military action to counter them.


On 31 December 2008, a few days after Israel launched its military assault on Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, went to Sderot and declared:


“Last Saturday [27 December] at 11:30, Israel started its military operation in the Gaza Strip – there was no other alternative.  For eight years now, Israel has been under attack from the Gaza Strip and it has become worse. Hamas, which is an extreme Islamic organization, a terrorist organization, … has been targeting Israel on a daily basis.” [2]


Tzipi Livni was telling a big lie, when she said “there was no other alternative”.  There was an alternative, which worked well from 19 June to 4 November, as the following account of life in Sderot in October illustrates:-


Israeli town celebrates end to daily rocket - Columnist - Israeli town celebrates end to daily rocket fireBesieged residents of Sderot relieved at quiet start to

Yom Kippur, thanks to the ceasefire with Hamas.


Toronto Star, October 09, 2008 [3]


SDEROT, Israel–Young boys horsed around on their bicycles, families hurried to make last-minute purchases at the downtown supermarket, and food stands did a steady business in shawarma and beer.


Meanwhile, the October sun sparkled down from a blue and rocket-free sky.


If this seems like an unremarkable description of any Israeli town about to mark the holy day of Yom Kippur, it almost could be – except for that part about rockets.


Just a kilometre from the Gaza Strip, this southern Israeli town has been struck by an average of three missiles a day for each of the past seven years – and that is a long way from what most people would consider normal.


Lately, however, the cloudless firmament over Sderot has been mostly free of deadly ordnance, and the community is doing its best to resemble what for a long time it has singularly failed to be – a halfway normal town.


For seven years, local residents barely went out at all. But, late last June, under Egyptian mediation, the Israeli government reached a ceasefire agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.


Since then, with only a few violations, the rocket salvoes from Gaza have stopped.

So have the punitive Israeli military incursions into the neighbouring strip – attacks that had been a frequent and deadly feature of Palestinian existence prior to the laying down of arms in June.

Less than a month later, on 4 November, Israel broke the ceasefire and, as a result, the near rocket-free days that Sderot had enjoyed since 19 June ended.


Key facts indisputable

The key facts about the ceasefire are indisputable.   They are confirmed in reports by the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center [ITIC], reports that are publicly available on the Center’s website [4] and are used extensively by the Israeli Government.


For example, a report entitled The Six Months of the Lull Arrangement [5], written on 17 December 2008, just before the 6-month ceasefire agreement was due to expire, summarises its effect as follows:


The lull arrangement brought relative quiet to the western Negev population and the

Gaza Strip, especially during its first months, but it did not completely end the rocket and mortar shell attacks.”  (paragraph 3)


The report makes no attempt to hide the fact that the ceasefire worked well up to 4 November 2008 and that it was Israel’s military incursion into Gaza on that date which brought it to an end in all but name.  Here’s what it says:


“An analysis of the situation on the ground indicates two distinct periods:

i) A period of relative quiet between June 19 and November 4: As of June 19, there was a marked reduction in the extent of attacks on the western Negev population. The lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire, carried out by rogue terrorist organizations, in some instance in defiance of Hamas (especially by Fatah and Al-Qaeda supporters). Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire. The IDF refrained from undertaking counterterrorism activities in the Gaza Strip, taking only routine defensive security measures along the border fence. Between June 19 and November 4, 20 rockets (three of which fell inside the Gaza Strip) and 18 mortar shells (five of which fell inside the Gaza Strip) were fired at Israel.


ii) The escalation and erosion of the lull arrangement, November 4 to the time of this writing, December 17: On November 4 the IDF carried out a military action close to the border security fence on the Gazan side to prevent an abduction planned by Hamas, which had dug a tunnel under the fence to that purpose. Seven Hamas terrorist operatives were killed during the action. In retaliation, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations attacked Israel with a massive barrage of rockets.” (paragraph 4)


So, the ITIC confirms that from 19 June to 4 November “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire” and that the relatively small number of ceasefire violations were “carried out by rogue terrorist organizations, in some instance in defiance of Hamas (especially by Fatah and Al-Qaeda supporters)”.


The ITIC also confirms that Israeli forces entered Gaza on 4 November and killed 7 members of Hamas and that the subsequent rocket fire by Hamas and other groups was “in retaliation”.  Clearly, if Israeli forces hadn’t entered Gaza, there would have been no retaliation – and the population of the Western Negev would have continued to be free from Hamas rocket fire.


Another ITIC report, Escalation in the Gaza Strip [6] justifies the Israeli incursion into Gaza by saying that the purpose of the tunnel was to abduct Israeli soldiers.  One doesn’t have to be a military genius to know that, once the tunnel was discovered, there was no need to enter Gaza to prevent the abduction of soldiers on the Israeli side of the fence.


Decline of rocket and mortar firing

The rate of rocket and mortar firing declined dramatically from 19 June onwards, when the ceasefire came into force.  The following bar chart from the ITIC report, Escalation in the Gaza Strip, illustrates the decline:



Rocket and Mortar Shell Fire during the Lull Period
Compared with the First Half of 2008



According to the bar chart, 1,199 rockets were fired out of Gaza in the five and a half months in 2008 up to 19 June, that is, on average, more than 200 a month.  By comparison, in the four and half months of the ceasefire from 19 June until 4 November, only 20 rockets in all were fired, that is, on average, less than 5 a month.  In fact, the rate of firing fell by 98%.


(The equivalent decline for mortar shells is 1,072 to 17, that is, on average, 180 a month to around 4 a month.  Again, the rate of firing also fell by 98%).


Note also that the number of violations of the ceasefire declined as time went on – only one rocket and three mortars were fired in September, and two rockets and no mortars in October


Clearly, up until 4 November, the ceasefire arrangements had been very successful in reducing the threat to Israeli civilians.


Return of near daily rockets

Hamas and other Palestinian groups continued firing rockets and mortars out of Gaza throughout Israel’s military assault on Gaza and afterwards.   Here is a picture of life in Sderot in mid-March:-



Israeli town copes with return of near daily rockets

In Sderot, Purim holiday fun masks stresses of rocket attacks from Gaza militants.

| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 14, 2009 edition [7]




The very hour Chana Melul returned to Sderot with her three young boys, whom she'd taken on vacation up north to escape the front lines, the rockets were back.


Minutes after they set down their suitcases, a Qassam rocket launched from nearby Gaza landed about 50 yards from their apartment building. It crashed into a storage shed and blew apart the sidewalk that leads to the community center around the corner. The center includes a rocket-resistant theater, recently built to give kids and grownups living here a little stress-free entertainment.


But for Ms. Melul, a single mother, the disquiet never really goes away. …


Nearly two months after Israel and Hamas each declared unilateral cease-fires, they have yet to come to an official truce. …


In the meantime, the violent volleys continue. Several times a week, Israel strikes at smuggling tunnels and the Palestinian militants in Gaza it says are responsible for launching rockets. Hamas and other groups such as Islamic Jihad send several rockets and short-range missiles into Israel on an almost daily basis. …


Geographically, her closest neighbors are in northern Gaza, where houses have suffered destruction in the recent war that simply can't be compared to the damages done here by Qassam rockets.


Clearly, the near rocket-free conditions, which Sderot enjoyed prior to Israel breaking the ceasefire on 4 November, were not restored by Israel’s assault on Gaza.  Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (including over 400 women and children) in the assault and 13 Israelis, including 3 civilians, also died, but the end result was that Sderot was a less safe place than before Israel broke the ceasefire.


ITIC reports show that in the 2 months after 18 January, when Israel ceased major military operations, 95 rockets were fired out of Gaza.  In other words, the rate of rocket firing was nearly 50 a month, which is over 10 times the rate during the four and a half months of the ceasefire [8].


Understandably, Israel didn’t complain very loudly about this continued firing, since doing so would have drawn attention to the fact that its military action had failed to suppress the capability of Hamas and other groups to fire rockets out of Gaza.


Tzipi Livni’s big lie

Israel claimed to be acting in self-defence when it launched its assault on Gaza on 27 December 2008.  In the words of Tzipi Livni, there was “no other alternative” to combat attacks out of Gaza.  That was a big lie: there was an alternative – the ceasefire, which from 19 June to 4 November had been very successful in reducing the threat to Israeli citizens, even though Israel didn’t lift its economic blockade of Gaza.


Clearly, from the point of view of keeping Israeli citizens safe, Israel’s assault on Gaza beginning on December 27 was totally unnecessary.  All Israel had to do to maintain the relative calm of last September and October was to stick to the terms of the ceasefire agreement.  It chose not to do so.



David Morrison

20 July 2009