Hamas and Israel are still far apart over a ceasefire deal

This picture shows rubble in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Photo by Omar AL-QATTAA / AFP) (AFP)
This picture shows rubble in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Photo by Omar AL-QATTAA / AFP) (AFP)


  • For all America’s optimism, the two sides look fundamentally irreconcilable

The euphoria in Israel at the rescue on June 8th of four hostages who had been captive in Gaza for eight months was short-lived. Senior Israeli officers rushed to extol the commandos who carried out the mission, one of whom was killed, and the accurate intelligence that located the two apartments in the crowded Nuseirat refugee camp where they were incarcerated. But officials were just as quick to dampen expectations that the remaining 120 Israeli hostages held by Hamas could be rescued in a similar fashion.

It was a “unique combination of intelligence and operational circumstances", explained one general. But Israeli security officials still reckon that a deal will have to be struck with their enemies if most of the remaining hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7th are to be freed.

For the people of Gaza the Israeli operation emphasised just how bleak their situation remains. According to the Hamas-run health authorities, at least 274 people were killed in the operation, as Israeli forces rained down covering fire to protect the escape route used by the hostages and commandos. Israel disputes these figures and claims that many of those killed were fighters. Whatever the exact number, a ceasefire cannot come too soon for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Antony Blinken, the American secretary of state, arrived in the region on June 10th to promote the ceasefire agreement presented by President Joe Biden ten days earlier. The deal, based on an Israeli proposal, has a three-stage framework. The first phase is a six-week truce, during which Israel would withdraw from the urban areas in Gaza and Hamas would release some of the hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Simultaneously, a second stage would begin with negotiations through intermediaries towards a longer-lasting ceasefire and the release of male Israeli soldiers held by Hamas and of more Palestinian prisoners. A third phase would see the return of the bodies of dead hostages and the start of a programme to rebuild the devastated Gaza Strip.

The bridge player’s card

Shortly after Mr Blinken’s arrival in Qatar’s capital, Doha, Hamas made its formal response through Qatari brokers. A source in the office of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was quick to pronounce that Hamas had rejected the deal. Mr Blinken was more sanguine. Hamas, he said, had proposed “numerous" changes, but some of them were “workable". He believed “those gaps are bridgeable".

Unlike the Israelis, the Americans remain, at least outwardly, upbeat when it comes to the prospects for a deal. On June 10th America sponsored a resolution in the UN Security Council favouring the accord. It passed with only Russia abstaining.

Neither Israel nor Hamas is particularly inclined to accept something with the UN’s imprimatur. The vote in the Security Council seems to be an attempt by the Americans to show that the proposal is still up and running, even if at present it is only running on the spot.

The fundamental difference between the two sides is that Israel wants to see more of its 120 hostages (at least 43 of whom are already presumed dead) returned before it makes any long-term promises. Hamas, meanwhile, is demanding that Israel commits to withdrawing from all of Gaza and accepts a long-term ceasefire before any hostages are freed.

Still, the true positions of the two sides are hard to assess. Hamas took more than two weeks to respond. Its leadership is thought to be split. The “outside" politburo, based mainly in Doha, is susceptible to international pressure, making it more open to a deal. Hamas’s Qatari hosts have threatened its leaders with banishment from their opulent lodgings if they reject the deal. However, the final word will be had by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s chief in Gaza and the mastermind of the massacre on October 7th.

Mr Sinwar seems unmoved by the possibility of upheaval in his colleagues’ living conditions. But he is under growing pressure to accept a deal. His decision to attack Israel has brought terrible destruction upon Gaza and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. He can only justify this to Palestinians if he manages to secure the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in return for the hostages. This latest Israeli operation highlighted that he may be running out of bargaining chips. Hamas has also been criticised in Gaza for holding the hostages in densely populated areas, which has resulted in high numbers of casualties during both this and previous rescue missions.

To make matters even murkier, Hamas’s responses take some time to come through because Mr Sinwar must be consulted at every stage. He is believed to be hiding somewhere in the tunnel network beneath Gaza. He communicates only through runners carrying written notes, to avoid giving his location away to the Israelis. As a result, any changes in Hamas’s position will take days to relay.

The Israeli position is not much clearer. The proposal being discussed ostensibly came from the Israeli government and Mr Netanyahu has admitted that he stands behind it. But it was formulated by the war cabinet, a small forum where Mr Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners are not represented—and they have threatened to resign from his governing coalition if it becomes policy. What is more, the war cabinet that issued the proposal weeks ago has now changed. It no longer includes the centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. They resigned from the government on June 9th, along with the other members of their National Unity party.

Mr Gantz explained in a press conference that “crucial strategic decisions are being blocked by hesitation and political considerations". He had given the prime minister a three-week deadline to come up with a comprehensive strategy for ending the war in Gaza. Mr Netanyahu failed to meet it, he said. Earlier in the day at a cabinet meeting the prime minister accused Mr Gantz of engaging in “small-time politics" and of bolting from the government “at the height of war". That is rich coming from a leader who has spent the past eight months doing all he can to save his political career.

Mr Gantz had been under intense pressure for months from the opposition to leave Mr Netanyahu’s government and join those calling for his resignation. Mr Gantz stayed in the war cabinet in the hope of clinching the ceasefire agreement. His decision to leave was explained more bluntly by Mr Eisenkot, who said the government “had completely failed" in all its objectives.

Their departure is another sign of the bleak prospects for an agreement. Mr Gantz and Mr Eisenkot do not think Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza is over. But they both believe it can—and should—be paused, at least for some months, to allow for the release of the surviving hostages and to start building an alternative authority to run Gaza instead of Hamas. Their joint decision to resign is a result of their frustration at Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to accept their plan.

He just won’t go

National Unity’s departure will not bring down the government or force elections; Mr Netanyahu still clings on with a small majority. But it leaves him depending entirely on the far right. Mr Gantz joined the government eight months ago on condition that the extremists in the government be excluded from the war cabinet. Now the prime minister will have to contend with them on his own. The leader of the Jewish Power party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has already demanded membership of “the most relevant and intimate forums", namely the war cabinet, in the remaining coalition. Mr Ben-Gvir and the leader of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich, want Israel to beef up its operations both in Gaza and against Hizbullah, the Shia militia that has been launching missiles into northern Israel from Lebanon. Both party leaders have promised to leave the government if a ceasefire deal with Hamas is reached.

Even if Mr Blinken is right and the gap between Israel and Hamas is “bridgeable", the internal differences on either side mean his mission has but a slim chance.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com


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