Palestinians walk among the rubble after returning to their neighbourhood destroyed during the Israeli military operations lasting for 3 weeks in Jabalia, Gaza. 1 June 2024
Palestinians walk among the rubble after returning to their neighbourhood destroyed during the Israeli military operations lasting for 3 weeks in Jabalia, Gaza. 1 June 2024 Mahmoud Issa / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP
Statement / Middle East & North Africa 10 minutes

A Gaza Ceasefire

The ceasefire deal the U.S. has tabled represents the best – and perhaps last – hope for both ending the Gaza war and getting the hostages held in the strip back any time soon. Israeli and Hamas leaders should accept it.

Efforts by Egyptian, Qatari and U.S. mediators to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas have reached a decisive juncture. The proposal on the table comes closer than its predecessors to getting past the main sticking point regarding a permanent ceasefire, which Hamas demands and to which Israel refuses to commit. It envisages an immediate truce and partial hostage/prisoner exchange, with talks to follow on Gaza’s governance and security. Though the deal on offer fully satisfies neither side, no better one is likely to emerge any time soon that can both end the fighting that has devastated Gaza and secure the release of Israeli hostages held in the strip. Moreover, the longer the war continues, the graver the risk that tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border, or between the U.S. and Iran-backed groups elsewhere, set off a regional escalation that could further draw in Washington and Tehran. Israel and Hamas should embrace the deal on the table as a humanitarian imperative and because neither side can achieve strategic victory and each has long passed the point of diminishing returns. Continued war will neither destroy Hamas as Israel seeks nor strengthen Hamas’s hand, let alone improve prospects for Palestinians. It guarantees only greater suffering to a people who desperately need relief.

Three Phases, Many Questions

Full details of the deal on offer have yet to become public, but the rough outlines have been widely reported. They follow the model in the mediators’ previous proposal in early May, a draft of which Hamas accepted, albeit with caveats, and which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government then rejected. The new version, which U.S. President Joe Biden announced in a White House speech on 31 May, appears to leave key elements in place: a ceasefire in three phases, with each consisting of steps that together would end the war.

In the first phase, of six weeks’ duration, Israel would withdraw its forces from all “populated areas” of Gaza. Hamas would release Israeli civilian, elderly and wounded hostages, as well as the remains of some deceased hostages, in exchange for Israel freeing an agreed-upon list of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Israel would also allow displaced Palestinian civilians to return to their homes including in Gaza’s north and allow the entry and distribution of more goods and fuel into the strip. The transition from phase one to two would follow talks between Israel and Hamas. Critically, the proposal states that the ceasefire is to hold as long as the parties continue their negotiations even if these extend beyond the allotted six weeks.

The deal’s second phase would see the release of all remaining hostages, including soldiers, and the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. At that point, the phase one ceasefire would turn into a permanent cessation of hostilities. In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the remains of the last of the deceased hostages. The import regime also would be relaxed, with Israel lifting its blockade to enable the movement of people and entry of goods as full reconstruction gets under way.

The provision on a “permanent cessation of hostilities” in phase two is the most significant modification to the earlier proposal, which had referred merely to a “sustainable period of calm”. It seeks to bridge the gap that caused previous negotiations to break down, namely between Hamas’s demand that a ceasefire be permanent and Israel’s that it not. Since Hamas’s 7 October 2023 attack, Israeli leaders have repeatedly stated that they are still committed to destroying Hamas (or at least its military and governance capability) in the long term. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz within the war cabinet and the military establishment have been more willing to halt fighting, at least temporarily, to get the hostages back, though that position is hindered by the fact that Netanyahu has a personal interest in refusing to enter any ceasefire deal, as it would almost certainly mean he would lose power. Hamas, for its part, has been unwilling to hand over hostages, especially the military officers which it considers to be key bargaining chips, in exchange for anything less than explicit guarantees that a ceasefire be permanent.

Implicit in the U.S. approach is a belief that a functioning ceasefire will create incentives for both sides.

The Biden administration, with the new proposal, has attempted to mollify both sides. It posits an immediate cessation of hostilities; a mechanism to maintain that ceasefire in place if good-faith negotiations on implementation continue; and a permanent cessation of hostilities as the end point of the second phase. That sequence can be read from the Hamas side as achieving a permanent end to fighting. It can be read by Israel as preserving some room for manoeuvre to return to hostilities. By encouraging each side to tolerate the ambiguities that make the deal feasible for the other, Washington is signalling to Hamas that it will make sure the ceasefire holds if the movement embraces the deal while reassuring Israel that even should the deal hold and a permanent ceasefire take root, its military campaign has rendered Hamas incapable of reprising the kind of attack it staged on 7 October. Implicit in the U.S. approach is a belief that a functioning ceasefire will create incentives for both sides, generating momentum and raising the costs of breaking the agreement.

Still, even if the two sides sign up, their mutually exclusive positions will make the agreement fragile and contingent. Achieving its primary purpose – stopping the bloodletting and getting the hostages home – will be subject to the completion of phase one and negotiations toward phase two. The absence of detail in the proposal regarding terms and mechanics, presumably even in the full unpublished text, is both its strength and its weakness. Mediators see the ambiguity as necessary for getting both sides to sign up and end a war that is devastating Gaza and its population, tanking Israel’s global standing and risking a wider regional escalation. But the lack of clarity on the most divisive disputes, in effect, punts those issues to talks in the first phase.

Fraught negotiations loom. For example, what would constitute Israel’s “full withdrawal” from all “populated areas” of Gaza is open to interpretation, meaning details of even the deal’s initial phase are ambiguous. How will the areas from which Israel withdraws be delineated? Will Israel launch incursions into those areas, as military officials have said it would continue to do after the war? Who would they target in such operations? It is widely assumed that Israel will continue to go after Hamas’s senior leadership, but how widely that is interpreted will bear on the sustainability of a ceasefire.

Getting to the second phase and beyond will require addressing the still more challenging questions of post-war governance and security in Gaza. Once even a temporary ceasefire is in place, humanitarian aid is supposed to ramp up and some reconstruction begin, though precisely what material Israel will allow in is unclear. The proposal does not address the political status of Gaza after hostilities end or whether Israel will maintain its systems of physical and administrative control of the strip. It does not address how Gaza would be governed after the war, much less who would govern it, nor the core question of Hamas’s future role. Nor does it lay out a process that could decide these questions. Trying to resolve those questions ahead of time, however, would rule out an immediate stop to the fighting.

The focus now is on whether Washington’s assurances will convince the two adversaries to proceed. On Israel’s side, the U.S. president’s decision to make a public statement outlining the proposal, asserting that Israel had already accepted it, caught Netanyahu off guard and put him on the spot. U.S. officials reportedly notified Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, Gallant and Gantz of the main points in Biden’s speech just an hour and a half before the president delivered it. Netanyahu’s initial comments seemed to hedge, not rejecting the proposal or denying that Israel had agreed to the wording, but offering his broad interpretation that it would allow Israel to keep pursuing its cardinal war objective of destroying Hamas and its governing capability in Gaza. Whether his statements aimed to manage domestic politics or undercut ongoing diplomacy, they have reinforced Hamas’s suspicions about Israeli intentions.

The war cabinet has closely guarded the proposal’s full text ... lest spoilers, especially to Netanyahu’s right, try to torpedo it.

The war cabinet has closely guarded the proposal’s full text – which reportedly runs four and a half pages – lest spoilers, especially to Netanyahu’s right, try to torpedo it. While Netanyahu appears to have the votes in the coalition to see the ceasefire deal approved, and polls suggest that a plurality of Israelis favour a hostage deal, two of his far-right ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, have threatened to leave the coalition government should he proceed, which could precipitate the government’s collapse, forcing Netanyahu to either form a temporary alternative coalition or leave office and hold elections.

As for Hamas, for now it insists on an explicit, up-front guarantee of an end to hostilities and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as the final outcome of the staged process. It welcomed Biden’s statements, and has continued to do so, but said it would not agree to a text that diverges from them; asserting that the proposal, which Hamas called “the Israeli paper … does not guarantee a permanent ceasefire, but rather a temporary ceasefire, and it does not closely link the three stages stipulated”. Hamas also called on Biden to “ensure that the occupation government agrees to [his statements] and that they are reflected in the text of the agreement”. Hamas argues, based on past experience, that once it appears that the war is over, even if only provisionally, pressure on Israel and the Biden administration will abate, the process will bog down, and Gaza – already destroyed – again will be forgotten and Israeli military operations will resume. In addition, while recent Hamas statements have prioritised a complete Israeli withdrawal and permanent ceasefire, a senior movement official claimed that the latest proposal imposes unacceptable restrictions on the release of politically prominent prisoners and insists on sending many of them into exile.

Time for a Deal

By making the proposal’s outlines public, Biden has vested significant personal credibility in his administration’s ability to produce a ceasefire ahead of the November U.S. elections. He is unlikely to be able to use his own authority in another big push for an end to the war before the November vote. His objective appears to be to deny Israel and Hamas negotiating space, making it difficult for either to say no. To put muscle behind his move, the U.S. circulateddraft resolution on a ceasefire in the UN Security Council to mobilise international support for the initiative.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should accept the Biden proposal – which the U.S. has gone to lengths to make ambiguous enough for him to work with and that the Israeli defence establishment supports – and avoid public statements to the contrary. For Israel, its eight-month assault has underlined the sobering reality that it has been unable to deal a decisive, strategic blow to Hamas. Nor is Israel’s war effort diminishing Hamas’s power as a political movement; to the contrary, its popularity has surged in the West Bank and beyond. Some vestige of Hamas’s power in Gaza will remain for the foreseeable future, to be diluted, if at all, primarily through politics. Continuing the war will bring further destruction of civilian infrastructure and further damage to Israel’s international standing, not the body blow it hopes to deliver Hamas. It would also mean the continuation and possible escalation of the intensive war of attrition with Hizbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, which could quickly spiral out of control and has already left tens of thousands of Israelis (and even more Lebanese) displaced. An end to the fighting in Gaza is necessary to halt these exchanges: Hizbollah will only stop rocket fire with such a ceasefire in place. The potential ensuing calm could allow residents on both sides of the border to return.

As for Hamas, while the group may not set great store by the U.S.’s signalling that it supports a permanent ceasefire, it has shown that it can survive Israel’s onslaught but is unlikely to achieve anything more than small-scale tactical victories in territory it can neither protect nor fully control. Maintaining the current trajectory in the hope of extracting a higher price from Israel by killing and wounding its troops, draining its resources, undermining perceptions of its military prowess, sullying its international reputation and straining its relationship with the U.S. is unlikely to yield a better deal, while inflicting more suffering and destruction on Gaza. The deal on offer includes an important concession from Israel, based on the communicated proposal – that the phase one ceasefire will be extended as long as negotiations continue in good faith. It is an opportunity for a prolonged cessation of hostilities that many Palestinians would blame Hamas for wasting. Further, if Hamas rejects the current proposal, the Biden administration will almost certainly also blame the group for the collapse of talks and, as November approaches, would be more likely to throw up its hands and let Israel follow its own war logic.

The two sides’ acceptance of the ceasefire deal would be just the start of difficult talks, requiring concerted diplomacy from the U.S., Egypt, Qatar and pressure and support from others, to bridge what for now seem almost unsurmountable differences and sustain negotiations. But a rejection of the proposed plan will make arrangements for the day after more complex than they already are. Far better to stop fighting now and seriously discuss what should happen next than to put off what is an inevitable reckoning yet again while, in the meantime, thousands more Palestinian civilians are killed, starved, displaced and further immiserated, and hope of getting the hostages out alive fades.

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