Nine top Israeli Cabinet members convened for an emergency session just before midnight Nov. 19 and are expected to continue holding talks for several hours. According to Israeli media reports, the Cabinet is debating a cease-fire proposal from Hamas. However, the debate could just as easily be about whether to launch a ground invasion of Gaza.
Israel is reportedly demanding 72 hours of quiet before negotiating the terms of a long-term truce. Notably, no Fajr-5 long-range rockets have been fired from Gaza in the past 24 hours. This could mean that Hamas has exhausted its supply or that it is refraining from attacking. Regardless of what Hamas claims to be the case, Israel must rely on imperfect intelligence to assess whether Hamas has retained the capability to strike deep into Israeli territory at will.
If intelligence indicates that Hamas has retained that capability, Israel may have little choice but to follow through with a ground invasion. If Hamas says it has run out of Fajr-5 rockets, a third-party inspector would need to verify the claim, and it is not clear that Israel would trust Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government to play that role.
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Though rocket attacks from Gaza declined on Nov. 19 and Israel has claimed that its military operations in the territory have also de-escalated, based on the current situation on the ground, it does not appear that either side has agreed to the rumored 72-hour quiet period for the negotiation of a long-term truce. Attacks by both sides have continued, and action is expected to decrease between midnight and 7 a.m. in line with the established pattern before increasing again. So long as Israel cannot trust Egypt to prevent Hamas from replenishing supplies during a temporary truce period, Israel is unlikely to significantly ease off its airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is expected to meet Nov. 20 to discuss whether to extend the calling up of reserve units, as requested by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. This could, in part, be a scare tactic to convince Hamas that Israel is ready to expand the operation, but thousands of Israeli troops have now been forward-deployed for four days. Israel is coming to the point where it needs to make a decision on whether to invade or negotiate.
The Nov. 19 Cabinet meeting was likely called to make that decision. Now, the Cabinet will need to examine the following critical questions: First, whether Hamas still possesses the long-range rocket capability to hit Israeli population centers. Second, what Hamas and Egypt can do to verify the status of the Fajr-5 arsenal. Third, whether Israel can trust its own intelligence on the status of the Fajr-5s. And lastly, whether Israel can trust Egypt to keep long-range rockets out of Gaza. The way the Cabinet answers these questions will determine whether a cease-fire is reached or the conflict escalates to a full ground incursion.