The initial agreement between Israel and Hamas for a short ceasefire from 24 November 2023 and a limited exchange of Israeli hostages held by Hamas with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel offers the first bit of respite since 7 October. It has come after painstaking efforts by Qatar, coordinated closely with Egypt and the United States (US). The brutal terrorist attack by Hamas on Israeli soldiers and civilians on 7 October has been followed by a relentless assault on the 2.2 million hapless residents of the Gaza Strip by Israel’s formidable air force, army, and naval forces. Visuals of bombed-out residential neighbourhoods and wounded children, of doctors, journalists and UN staffers killed in the line of duty and of caravans of desperate families moving from North Gaza towards an illusion of safety in the South have all combined to create a powerful anti-Israel narrative of collective punishment, war crimes, and even genocide. It has also stirred millions to come out on the streets to demand an immediate ceasefire. Banners and T-shirts proclaiming ‘Free Palestine’ have become ubiquitous in massive protests from Cairo to Cape Town and from London to Lahore. One even made its way into the ICC World Cup Finals in Ahmedabad on November 19 and briefly halted the game.
The brutal terrorist attack by Hamas on Israeli soldiers and civilians on 7 October has been followed by a relentless assault on the 2.2 million hapless residents of the Gaza Strip by Israel’s formidable air force, army, and naval forces.
For Israel, this is an unusual situation. Its argument that Hamas has built a vast underground network of tunnels and massive aerial bombardment with unavoidable collateral damage is the only way of achieving its stated objective of destroying the militant organisation is plausible. But the legitimacy of this position is grievously undermined by the egregious statements emanating from prominent Israeli leaders, including serving members of the government who indicate, at the very least, an intent towards ethnic cleansing in North Gaza. The impunity being displayed by armed Jewish settlers in the West Bank as they grab Palestinian properties in broad daylight only adds to Israel’s opprobrium. This is also Israel’s first conflict with the Palestinians where mainstream media is unable to channel the narrative in Israel’s favour. The social media revolution, for all its faults, has led to a democratisation of information as a host of citizen journalists use their cell phones to capture images and videos that go viral on Instagram. Prime Minister Netanyahu is responding to these challenges with a tried-and-tested formula that has usually worked in the past—a mix of bluster, obfuscation, prevarication and procrastination. But in the changed realities of 2023, this may not work.
One such changed reality is the flurry of diplomatic activity that goes beyond the usual confines of the UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. The newly expanded BRICS group held an emergency virtual summit under South Africa’s presidency on 21 November and called for an immediate ceasefire, while the G20 virtual summit held under India’s presidency on 22 November issued a seven-point plan that reiterated the need for a long term resolution of the Palestine issue within the ambit of a two-state solution. More important, perhaps, was the tough final statement issued by the extraordinary joint summit of Arab and Islamic nations in Riyadh on 11 November and the ministerial committee established to “stop the war in Gaza and exert pressure to launch a serious and real political process to achieve lasting and comprehensive peace in accordance with approved international resolutions.” The committee, comprising the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Türkiyé, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Palestine Authority and the secretary generals of the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has set about its mission of with unusual vigour. They have already visited Beijing, Moscow, Paris and London and “underscored the need for members of the Security Council and for the international community to take effective and urgent measures for a complete ceasefire in Gaza.” The Saudis have publicly called for a two-state solution and a return to the pre-1967 borders in return for a more broad-based Arab recognition of Israel as outlined in the Arab Peace Plan of 2002.
Any serious effort in this direction must address a host of immediate challenges even as it seeks a longer-term resolution for the conundrum. These include, in Rumsfeld-speak, both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.
Netanyahu’s turbulent reign over the country’s fractured polity is widely expected to end, prompting muted hope of a new leadership that will recognise the structural failure of a policy that is predicated on a denial of Palestinian rights.
- What happens to the rest of the hostages? In a sense, the deal involving 50-odd women and children appears to be the easier part. Things will become more complicated when it comes to exchanging Israeli soldiers for Palestinians who have been convicted by Israeli courts for ‘terrorist’ offences.
- The initial success of these hostage negotiations provides clear evidence that even after six weeks of intense bombardment and amidst the presence of Israeli tanks and troops in the heart of Gaza, there is a degree of functional coordination between the political wing of Hamas in Doha and the military wing in Gaza. So what happens next? Does the ceasefire continue as negotiations for further releases progress? The growing pressure from the families of hostages on Netanyahu’s government would suggest that such negotiations may now take precedence over the nebulous goal of destroying Hamas.
- What’s the endgame that Israel plans for Gaza? Once the deal for the hostages is done and the dust from the destruction of Gaza—if not of Hamas itself—has settled, will Netanyahu follow through with his promise of establishing security control over Gaza? Are we going to see the return of Israeli settlements like the 21 that existed until Israel under Ariel Sharon unilaterally vacated Gaza in 2005? But that would mean returning to a playbook that was tried and that didn’t work.
- If it isn’t Israel, then who runs Gaza after the war? The territory was under Egyptian jurisdiction from 1948 until Israel took control in the 1967 war but neither Egypt nor any of the other Arab states have any appetite for this responsibility. An alternate could be to enable the Palestine Authority (PA) to establish unified control over both the West Bank and Gaza but this runs into two problems. Israel would have to make a dramatic switch towards strengthening the PA instead of undermining it and the PA would need to choose a more effective leader than Mahmoud Abbas.
- That still doesn’t resolve the other new reality created by 7 October and its bloody aftermath. Despite all the death and destruction that its actions have wrought on so many in Gaza, Hamas, today, is perceived by a not insignificant number of Palestinians as a more effective voice for their legitimate grievances and unfulfilled aspirations than the PA is sometimes seen as an accomplice of Israel. Netanyahu’s vows to destroy Hamas have also created a dangerous zero-sum game where the survival of Hamas equals its victory. None of this is desirable for Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates which consider Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—an organisation that they have outlawed and declared as a terrorist entity. The possibility of a Hamas-inspired and Iran-fuelled rise of Islamic radicalisation amongst the youthful populations of this region is anathema to them. And yet, a pragmatic approach may require the inclusion of Hamas into the kind of big-tent structure that the Palestine Liberation Organization had traditionally embraced, one that was able to accommodate diverse and occasionally feuding groups like Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and others within its embrace. Would Hamas agree to the recognition of Israel as a price for its own acceptance and would the key Arab states agree to give Hamas a seat on the table if negotiations for the future of Gaza (and possibly of the West Bank) gather momentum? This could be an effective counter to Netanyahu’s approach of dividing the Palestinian leadership between an emasculated PA in the West Bank and an ostracised Hamas in Gaza.
- Iran has once again demonstrated its disruptive power in the region. It had been left out of developments that started with the Abraham Accords in 2020, gave birth to the I2U2 grouping in 2021 and to the ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor project that was announced on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023. But the 7 October attack by its ally Hamas has pushed both Iran and the Palestine issue back into the equation. Little wonder that President Raisi showed up at the Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh, posing a pointed question: can Iran be made a part of the solution instead of being seen as a part of the problem? Otherwise, the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas narrative that peace negotiations and multilateral efforts don’t work, that Gaza shows the moral failure of the Western rules-based order where some lives matter less than others and that an armed and capable axis of resistance is the only alternative will not only become the dominant narrative but will also fuel further radicalisation.
- With almost half of Gaza’s housing and much of its vital infrastructure already in ruins, any plans for the day after will have to include a massive reconstruction effort even if the war ends today. The approaching winter will expose over 1.7 million displaced Palestinians to the mercy of the elements. Could this impending humanitarian disaster impose a sense of urgency on decision-making processes and possibly lead to an Arab-led, Gulf-funded and UN-backed process that takes the lead for both security and reconstruction in Gaza? It would have to take place within a broader framework of assurances from Israel and the US that the reconstruction won’t be reduced to rubble again.
- In Israel, there will clearly be a reckoning once the war is over. Netanyahu’s turbulent reign over the country’s fractured polity is widely expected to end, prompting muted hope of a new leadership that will recognise the structural failure of a policy that is predicated on a denial of Palestinian rights. Will the horrors of the 7th October attacks lead to the emergence of a more centrist leadership in Israel?
- And finally, there is the US which has once again demonstrated its centrality by working closely with Egypt and Qatar in the ongoing hostage negotiations and in ensuring the flow of some relief supplies into Gaza amidst the hostilities. But as the election season gets into full swing, there is a clear gap between how President Biden overcame his distaste for Netanyahu’s policies to express rock-solid support for Israel and the way his Democratic party supporters take a more balanced view of the issue. Since the Republicans have largely positioned themselves behind both Netanyahu and Israel, the evolving political calculus in Washington DC will become another key unknown.
Iran has once again demonstrated its disruptive power in the region. It had been left out of developments that started with the Abraham Accords in 2020, gave birth to the I2U2 grouping in 2021 and to the ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor project that was announced on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023.
This is a complicated situation even without bringing in other unknowns like the actions of Iran’s allies like Hezbollah on Israel’s border with Lebanon and the Houthis as they target shipping in the Red Sea from their redoubts in Yemen. The war in Gaza could still spiral into a regional conflagration through an accidental strike, a communication failure or a misadventure by one of the non-state actors. Last week’s initial agreement on the release of hostages has opened up a tiny sliver of hope and all the key actors must build upon it to establish a lasting ceasefire as an essential first step towards de-escalation and a durable resolution.
Navdeep Suri is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
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