Twelve days after Israel launched its attack on Gaza and four long days into the ground offensive, the first flickers of hope at last appeared on the horizon. What was the turning point? Was it the many civilian deaths at a school being used as a UN shelter on Tuesday – for which President Shimon Peres apologised yesterday? Or domestic misgivings about the extent of the suffering in the densely-populated war zone? Was it perhaps the mounting international pressure on Israel to call a halt, or a belief among Israel's commanders that the capability of Hamas to resist was nearing exhaustion. Any one of these factors, or the cumulative effect of all, could have swayed Israel's war cabinet when it met yesterday.
Israel's acceptance of a daily three-hour halt in military operations to allow food and fuel to be taken in to Gaza, and then distributed, marked the first break in almost two weeks of unremitting hostilities. In effect, the provision for humanitarian corridors meant that Israel's had belatedly accepted a European Union appeal it had earlier rejected. Israel then said it had agreed the "principles" of a ceasefire proposal drafted by France and Egypt, while denying that it had accepted the ceasefire as such. While such caveats might make Israel's position sound tentative, they are the very stuff of diplomatic negotiation. As of last night, Israel had agreed to send a representative to talks in Cairo today.
It is too early to say that the military phase of this conflict is now over – or to predict with any confidence that a formal ceasefire will be finalised in the coming days. The next steps do not depend only on Israel. They depend also on the military and political leaders of Hamas and on the Fatah government which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. They also depend, crucially, on the determination of international mediators to devise arrangements that will pass muster with all parties – and mechanisms to enforce them.
If this entails international guarantors, and – perhaps in the longer term – an international presence of some kind to help secure Israel's border with Gaza, then the willingness of those countries expected to contribute must be established in advance. Nothing can be left to chance.
Early signs are that the Cairo talks will be delicate, even if they turn out to be only exploratory. The deputy head of Hamas's political bureau was quoted as saying yesterday that the organisation rejected a permanent truce. Even if there is an element of grandstanding here, Israel will still want assurances – first that Hamas will not be able to re-arm, and second that it will be able to ensure that its fighters are bound by any ceasefire.
Attendance in Cairo, or at any follow-up talks, will also be crucial. For any agreement to stick, it must come with the co-operation of Fatah, and the more support garnered also from Arab states, the better. There will have to be communication, too, if only through a third party, between Israel and Hamas – something that Israel has rejected, so long as Hamas refuses to recognise it as a state.
At this point, however, Israel's practical security should take precedence over the principle of recognition. And security means an end not just to rocket attacks, but to the tunnels used for smuggling. In return, the Palestinian Authority will hold out for a reopening of legitimate crossing points. The outline conditions for an end to the Gaza conflict are evident. Ensuring that they are met, though, will require a determined, and genuinely multilateral, effort.