An uneasy truce, extended in instalments, holds in Gaza. Exchange of captives between the warring parties and humanitarian access to Gaza continue, with occasional hitches, under the terms mediated primarily by Qatar, and supported by the United States.
By simple arithmetic, the truce can be extended roughly for a fortnight (number of remaining Israeli hostages, including soldiers, divided by ten). Then, we may return to all-out war or something else.
This lull may have more in store. Let us proceed step by step.
The brutal rampage of 7 October 2023 will forever be a day of infamy in Israel. But its political repercussions were immediate. Israel at once abandoned its policy, in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Israel concluded that reducing the question of Palestine to a security issue confined to Gaza, all the while devouring the West Bank, had come to a dead -and deadly- end. There could no more be Hamas in Gaza. The utility of this radical outfit for Israel was simply exhausted.
The Israeli Government’s objectives crystallized only in the process of war. They are eliminating Hamas (not realizable), returning all hostages (realizable), and ensuring that Gaza does not become a threat to Israel again (will take more than the war effort).
For the better part of the years with Gaza under Hamas’ control, Israel had both heightened security sensitivity, given the regionwide chaos following the Arab uprisings, and freedom to act as it pleased in the Occupied Territories, as the Arab regimes were all busy making their own existential stand. This was the ecosystem in which security defined politics in Israel, and Palestine was compartmentalized further.
If the Arab governments struck back at their dissenting people with vengeance after 2011, those people are now coming back with no less rage, exposing the utter failure of their regimes in ending Palestinian suffering. After the revolts and the ensuing bloodletting, the third round of the uprisings beckons. This is the deeper reason for the current restlessness of those governments.
On 7 October, Hamas made a strategic move, crushing its unwritten rules of engagement with Israel. Without a clear prior agreement with the wider, Iran-led axis of resistance to strike Israel in such game-changing fashion, Hamas found itself virtually alone on the battlefield. The U.S. warnings consolidated this outcome.
The United States, for its part, suddenly realized the greater dangers of toeing the Israeli line regarding Palestine. This put in jeopardy all its strategic investments as well as retrenchment in the region, including the normalization drive.
This led to an unprecedented flurry of high-level diplomacy, but perhaps more importantly, rendered the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza a central element of the war equation. This is what distinguishes the current Gaza war from all preceding ones, when civilian suffering was treated merely as a “saddening collateral”.
This is why we have the truce, however precarious, now.
Israeli bombardment was decidedly more ferocious and widespread, causing ever greater numbers of civilian casualties, and flattening entire neighborhoods, in preparation of a ground invasion. Vengeance factor aside, Israel also wanted to put pressure on all concerned parties to cooperate in minimizing these casualties either by pushing the Gazans to flee towards Egypt (which did not work until now) or by relocating the population within the strip, thereby creating a colossal humanitarian crisis.
And the tragedy is too big this time for Hamas to easily parry off its own responsibility in inviting such destruction.
Here is the calculus:
1. How much more time can Hamas buy? It may add new conditions for the release of captive Israeli soldiers, but Israel’s response will most probably be in the form of renewed military pressure.
2. Israel will have to tread a less fierce line in expanding its ground incursions into southern Gaza, because the area now shelters nearly all Gazans, and the U.S. has already told that aerial bombardment and shelling cannot continue as in the north. This means more focused and surgical ground operations, substantially increasing the vulnerability of the IDF members.
3. It is understood that half of Hamas militia have already suffered heavy losses. Isolated, it will be only a matter of weeks, if not days, before the remaining Hamas units in the north are totally neutralized. The regrouped and entrenched units in the south will be poised to make their last stand, but they too will be encumbered by the density of the civilian population.
4. Iran and its non-state allies do not have an existential stake in this fight, to the chagrin of Sunni Hamas. Sectarianism is sectarianism. Their never concretized red line may come close to keeping Hamas in Gaza, if in its emasculated condition. But regional spillover of the conflict will more likely be the result of an unintended escalation over the Israel-Lebanon border or some miscalculation. Otherwise, Iran would be averse to taking a strategic decision that will eventually put itself on target.
5. Meanwhile, the West Bank is resuming its central role for two reasons. Gaza distraction is over, and the West Bank revolt is simmering. Israel’s increased brutality there attests to its unease with the growing Palestinian resentment.
6. Enter the Arab public, who were simply overlooked by their governments and Western countries alike when they shaped their policies. Not this time.
7. Something’s got to give. A delicate equilibrium is taking form. Calls for a permanent ceasefire will grow louder now that the relief the truce has brought is overtaking the war-footing mood both in Israel and Palestine. This puts the Israeli government and Hamas in a tight spot. The political price of the war, apart from more death and destruction, will grow. The endgame of this conflict will not emerge on the battlefield. It will be on the political level. We shall be hearing more on the prospect of a two-state settlement. Whether the current Israeli leadership likes it or the Palestinian leadership can assume it will be a bit beside the point. This time, this war is becoming the dependent variable of the changing context, not the other way around. Whatever the post-war arrangements for Gaza will be, Hamas does not seem to have a future there. There is an emerging consensus in this direction in the Arab fold. This will also satisfy the concrete Israeli objective in this war. And Hamas will be left to content itself with its political role in the wider Palestinian framework. After all, it was Hamas which brought the question of Palestine back to international attention. In the haze of this partial success, the Hamas leadership in Gaza and its remaining fighters may be evacuated to a third country.