ceasefire deal in the balance again as Israel presses ahead with its military campaign

Hamas made a renewed offer to the Israeli government for a possible ceasefire in Gaza last Friday. The offer included what a member of Israel’s negotiating team called a “very significant breakthrough”.

It led Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send the head of the Mossad domestic intelligence agency, David Barnea, to Qatar. There he met Qatar’s prime minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who has been an intermediary in the long drawn-out talks.

These developments raised hopes for progress in the negotiations. But within 48 hours reality intervened. It emerged that Barnea was actually in Qatar to deliver fresh demands on Hamas before progress could be made, leading to accusations that the Israeli government was trying to sabotage the the proposal.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Gaza has intensified. Israeli forces are now expanding their military operations in Gaza City, despite having declared the district fully under their control many months ago. What can be made of all this? And are there any prospects for a temporary ceasefire, or is that still a lost cause?

Three Israeli army vehicles driving down a dusty road towards a war-damaged city.

Israeli army vehicles transporting a group of soldiers and journalists inside the southern Gaza Strip.
Ohad Zwigenberg / POOL / EPA

In reality, the chances of reaching a ceasefire deal are, and always have been, slim. Netanyahu learned shortly after the start of the war that the complete destruction of Hamas would not be possible.

Read more:
Gaza war: with both sides playing politics, don’t expect a ceasefire any time soon

The group has suffered huge casualties, but it appears able to reconstitute and reinforce its units. It also has plenty of support in the occupied West Bank and remains closely allied to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu pressed on with the campaign in Gaza and the Israeli military quickly moved towards the Dahiya doctrine. This is a long-established military strategy where direct attacks on insurgent groups such as Hamas are accompanied by the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure in the areas they operate.

This has involved the destruction of public buildings in Gaza on a massive scale, including schools, medical centres, water and sewage treatment plants, and all 12 of Gaza’s higher education centres together with tens of thousands of homes.

Even this, and the persistent restriction of humanitarian aid, has not brought Hamas to its knees. And Netanyahu is now also facing the risk of an escalation in attacks from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which in recent months have forced tens of thousands of Israelis to evacuate the border region.

Read more:
Lebanon’s Hezbollah is proving to be a serious problem for Israel

The war is proving very costly. But in pressing ahead with it, Netanyahu can still rely on support from the coalition of parties that make up his government – and especially that of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two key ministers and leaders of religious and ethnonationalist parties.

It is no secret that Smotrich would like Israel to continue its military campaign. On July 8, he said on social media that making a ceasefire deal now when Hamas is “collapsing and begging for a ceasefire” would be “senseless folly”.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have in the past threatened to bring down Netanyahu’s government if any ceasefire deal is struck before Hamas is destroyed. And with the former head of the armed forces, Benny Gantz, resigning from the war cabinet in June, their two extreme parties are enjoying increased influence within the government.

What happens now?

Where we go from here depends on four main factors. One is whether Israel can improve its military position in Gaza sufficiently enough to think it can comprehensively defeat Hamas and end the war on its own terms. That is highly unlikely as the conflict moves towards an intense counterinsurgency operation with no end in sight.

The second is the extent of support for Hamas. It is easy to assume that the sheer level of destruction must mean support for an end to the war on almost any terms is paramount among Palestinians. That may not be so.

Israel’s rigid control of Gaza stretches back decades, and thousands of Palestinians were killed in the four Israeli assaults on the territory between 2008 and 2021. So it is more sensible to think of deep anger directed much more at Israel than Hamas.

Third is the US, whose support is vital to the Israeli war effort. Joe Biden could pull the plug on arms supplies and force Israel to accept a ceasefire. But that is unlikely given the support Israel has within the US, especially from the millions of Christian Zionists, let alone the Israel lobby.

And, in any case, Biden is preoccupied with other matters just now – not least speculation over his fitness to run for a second term in November’s presidential election.

The cost of the war to Israel in terms of its international reputation has been substantial. But this plays little part in Netanyahu’s thinking. For him, the conflict is best continuing until November and the possibility of a sympathetic Donald Trump back in the White House.

Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich sat in discussion in front of Israeli flags.
Netanyahu speaks with his minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, during a cabinet meeting in January 2024.
Ronen Zvulun / POOL / EPA

There are various other issues that could influence the likelihood of a ceasefire too, including the position of the new Iranian government. But there is a fourth, more specific, matter.

Israel is a remarkably militarised state that regards its capabilities with pride and is prepared to go a very long way in its security interests. However, senior elements within the military seem to have become convinced that the war is unwinnable and an escalation with Hezbollah may be impossible to contain.

It could be from that unexpected quarter that Netanyahu will find the strongest opposition to his rule.

Source link