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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why a Gaza Strip cease-fire is so elusive



Israeli soldiers near where a tunnel shaft had been found in the central Gaza Strip, during an escorted tour for journalists by the military, on Jan. 8, 2024. After days of intensive diplomacy in the region, a monthslong effort to end the war in Gaza seems as stuck as ever, as each side clings stubbornly to maximalist demands unacceptable to the other. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/The New York Times)

By Isabel Kershner


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called Hamas’ response to the latest peace proposal for the Gaza Strip “negative.” Hamas insisted it was dealing with it “positively.”


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Qatar, said Hamas had demanded changes, some of which were “workable” and some not. A Hamas official told an Arabic television channel that the group had not raised any new ideas, and that Blinken saw things through an Israeli lens and “speaks Hebrew.”


The Biden administration has pledged to keep working with Qatari and Egyptian mediators to bridge the gaps. But after days of intensive diplomacy in the region, a monthslong effort to end the war in Gaza seems as stuck as ever, as each side clings stubbornly to maximalist demands unacceptable to the other.


Asked Friday at the Group of 7 summit meeting in Italy if he still thought a deal could be reached, President Joe Biden said, “I haven’t lost hope, but it’s going to be tough.”


At the crux of the disagreement over the three-phased deal, according to officials and experts, is Hamas’ goal of essentially securing a permanent cease-fire from the outset and a withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza before handing over most of its hostages.


Israel says it is willing to negotiate a permanent cessation of the war, now in its ninth month — but only after dismantling Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. That clashes with Hamas’ goals of surviving the war and retaining control of the coastal enclave.


“The hostages are the only cards Hamas has in hand as leverage against Israel, so its basic demand is maximalist,” said Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council and now a senior research fellow of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Israel.


“What Hamas wants is for Israel to withdraw and end the war, and for Hamas to continue to rule Gaza, with all that entails,” he said, “while the fate of the hostages is not entirely clear.”


The three-phase plan would begin with an immediate, temporary cease-fire and work toward a permanent end to the war and the reconstruction of Gaza. The plan also calls for the release of all the remaining people held captive in Gaza, civilians and soldiers, in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.


The recent chain reaction of proposals and counterproposals began in late April, when Israel presented a draft that Blinken called “extraordinarily generous.”


Israel offered at least two concessions, allowing Palestinians displaced from northern Gaza to return to their homes and lowering from 40 to 33 the number of hostages to be released in the first phase of the deal.


Of the more than 250 people taken captive during the devastating Hamas-led assault of Oct. 7 on southern Israel, which prompted the war, 116 remain in Gaza, according to Israeli officials. At least a third of them are no longer alive.


About 1,200 people were killed in the assault Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials, while more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed so far in the war, Gaza health authorities say. Their tally does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.


Hamas announced May 6 that it had accepted the proposal. But it turned out that the group was accepting an altered version. Israel said at the time that major gaps remained between the two sides.


Weeks later, Israel replied with the latest draft, which Biden outlined in a speech May 31 and was then endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. U.S. and Israeli officials say it is very similar to the May 6 draft that was accepted by Hamas.


Israeli officials have confirmed that the proposal was approved unanimously by Netanyahu’s small war Cabinet, though far-right members of his ruling coalition have vowed that if he proceeds with it, they will bring down his government.


Israel is edging closer to being able to contemplate an end of the war now that its ground operation in the Gaza city of Rafah is underway. Israel had presented the enclave’s southernmost city as a last bastion of Hamas’ organized battalions and has now gained control of the corridor along Gaza’s border with Egypt, long a main conduit for weapons smuggling into the territory.


But Hamas has showed resilience, reemerging in pockets in central Gaza that Israel thought it had cleared of militants. The group has little incentive to compromise and give up any future role after the war, said Zakaria Al-Qaq, a Palestinian expert in national security, especially when recent polls indicate that it is the most popular faction among Palestinians.


“Hamas doesn’t want to lose out politically while it is still standing militarily,” he said. Their defiant staying power, he said, “is their victory.”


Hamas has said in multiple statements that despite reports that Israel has accepted the plan, all it has heard from Netanyahu’s government are denunciations of the proposal and an insistence on continuing the war.


As well as American guarantees of a permanent cease-fire, Hamas is now demanding that Russia, China and Turkey serve as guarantors and signatories to a cease-fire. That demand will be unacceptable to Israel.


The wrangling comes against the background of a roller-coaster week of events and conflicting emotions for Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. Last weekend, Israelis were jubilant over the audacious rescue of four hostages from Gaza. Palestinians mourned the scores of people killed during the raid — well more than 200, according to Gaza health officials. In the immediate aftermath, the Israeli military said the number was fewer than 100. Neither side provided any breakdown of how many of those killed were combatants or civilians.


Analysts said the high death toll would most likely harden Hamas’ negotiating position.


Days later, four Israeli soldiers were killed and several more wounded after militants blew up a building in Rafah where the troops were operating. Hamas’ military wing took responsibility. “Our fighters were able to blow up a house rigged with explosives where Zionist forces had fortified themselves inside,” it said in a statement.


Shay, the former deputy national security adviser, said that not enough pressure was being put on Hamas — by Israel, militarily or from outside. He said the United States and Qatar could be doing more, such as working to freeze Hamas funds and to deport the Hamas officials based in Doha, the Qatari capital.


But speaking to reporters alongside Blinken in Doha on Wednesday, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, said that it allowed Hamas to maintain its offices in Doha for a reason — as a communication channel, which he said was valid and was now being used.


As a mediator, he said, Qatar tried “not to make judgments” regarding one party or another and was trying its best to bridge the gaps.


“Our biggest concern is that it’s taking too long to bridge these gaps,” Al-Thani said, adding, “We need to get this to an end as soon as possible.”

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