Friday's alleged abduction of an Israeli soldier was a singular episode in the course of the three-and-a-half week war between Israel and Hamas for a number of reasons.
As we noted, the development came just as Israel and Hamas were set to suspend fighting for 72 hours and potentially inch closer to ironing out a long-term ceasefire deal. Instead fighting and rocket fire intensified and many Palestinians died, particularly as Israeli forces concentrated on the area in southern Gaza where 2nd.-Lt. Hadar Goldin was said to have been taken.
But perhaps most intriguingly, Hamas continues to deny that it has taken the soldier. On Saturday, the group reiterated the claim which, as Avi Issacharoff points out, is both odd and unprecedented:
For the first time since it was established in December 1987, Hamas is trying to shake off responsibility for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Kidnappings of this nature were always a source of pride to Hamas. Just two weeks ago, when it was clear that Oron Shaul had been killed in an attack on an IDF APC in Shejaiya, Hamas claimed that it had seized a soldier alive.
As we mentioned yesterday, the group, which controls Gaza, first took credit for the kidnapping, but then quickly changed its story. On Saturday, Hamas issued a more strenuous denial, as reported by the New York Times:
“Until now, we have no idea about the disappearance of the Israeli soldier,” the statement read. “We do not know his whereabouts or the conditions of his disappearance.” Saying the leadership had lost touch with its “troops deployed in the ambush,” the statement added: “Our account is that the soldier could have been kidnapped and killed together with our fighters.”
So what gives? Here are some possibilities:
The timing of the attack matters
The more broadly accepted timeline of the attack in which Goldin was reportedly taken puts Hamas as the party that breached the ceasefire, which was brokered with the help of a number of countries. Hamas claims the attack happened an hour before the ceasefire, Israel (backed by the U.S. and others) says it happened 90 minutes after.
Had this episode actually taken place before the ceasefire started (or if that were the prevailing narrative), there would be parades through Gaza about the capture of an Israeli soldier. Following the precedent set by the capture of deal for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit deal, the abduction of Israeli soldiers for use as bargaining chips has become a stated goal of Hamas. As the group's tunnels were uncovered in recent weeks, they've reportedly been found stocked full of tranquilizers and handcuffs to commit kidnappings in cross-border raids into Israel.
But with a three-day truce (one that Hamas badly wanted) completely destroyed by the attack, Hamas' credibility isn't the only thing on the line here.
Embarrassment of Hamas' allies
Part of what has made this conflict different from past wars involving Hamas and Gaza is that Hamas' alliances have shifted and their isolation has grown.
A regime change in Egypt brought back military rule and deposed the Hamas-friendly Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ties between Hamas and Iran, which had been strong in recent years, frayed as Hamas condemned the actions of Syrian dictator (and Iran ally) Bashar Assad last summer.
In other words, Hamas doesn't have a lot of friends. That it could anger Qatar and Turkey, which has been championing Hamas on the international level in negotiations, is something the group can ill afford.
The potential end of the Israeli operation
The temporary ceasefire came as Israel was under intense pressure to relent its campaign following a week in which several hundred Palestinians were killed. Sympathy for Gaza's plight, even among U.S. officials, was at a high. News of the kidnapping changed the calculus and gave Israel some space to operate, just as it was on the verge of potentially ending its operation.
The counteroffensive by Israel may be nearing its end anyway. On Saturday, two major things happened in the conflict that were not directly related to the kidnapping.
First, as Reuters reported, Israel said that refugees in city of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip could return to their homes for the first time since Israel's ground offensive began over two weeks ago.
Also, a military source told the Israeli site Ynet that nearly all of the tunnels in the Gaza Strip had been neutralized. This happened as direct battles between Israeli troops and Gaza fighters began to wane.
He adds that there were also relatively few clashes between IDF troops and Gazan fighters since yesterday, “other than the Givati incident and another incident involving anti-tank fire in Shejaiya.”
Presumably, just 24 hours ago, Israel was in a position where it would might have had to agree to a ceasefire containing conditions that would have given Hamas a badly needed public relations victory. Since then, the Israeli cabinet has announced it is not interested in negotiating for a ceasefire, given the ostensible failing of this past one.
As a result, the conflict may end with a "quiet-for-quiet" scenario rather than a negotiated ceasefire from which Hamas would have stood to gain. Short of being totally broken by the Israeli offensive, this would be a bad outcome for Hamas, especially given the destruction wrought upon Gaza.