A US/Qatari-brokered pause in the fighting in Gaza looks likely to bring some imminent relief to the plight of the Palestinians besieged by Israeli forces hunting down Hamas terrorists. While Benjamin Netanyahu said no deal had yet been reached, reports from Washington say a five-day hiatus is being negotiated to allow many of the 240 hostages to be released and humanitarian aid to be delivered.
The cynical tactics of Hamas, whose fighters embed themselves in hospitals and among the civilian population, has led to a high fatality rate. This is draining international support for Israel that was strong, in the West at least, after the October 7 massacres. The siege of the Al-Shifa hospital, which the Israel Defense Forces believes is a Hamas base, is testing the limits of that backing.
While most Western governments have defended Israel’s right to destroy Hamas, unease over the death toll is growing by the day and causing political ructions far beyond the Middle East. In Washington, Joe Biden is under growing pressure to change US policy. Here, Labour’s divisions over Sir Keir Starmer’s refusal to back a ceasefire call is a manifestation of a wider political dislocation triggered by the conflict. So, too, is the disgraceful picketing of the homes of Labour MPs, which Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, argues amount to intimidation, not lawful protest.
The pause being discussed in Gaza will fall short of a ceasefire and yet the hiatus will be used to try to secure some sort of settlement that could bring the fighting to an end. Much will depend on how much of the Hamas command and control infrastructure has been destroyed sufficient to ensure it can never be reactivated. If there is any chance of its recovery, Israel will not stop until the group is eradicated.
The reduced risk of the Gaza invasion triggering a wider regional conflict after Iran made clear it was staying out means the IDF can finish the job it started. But this must be done with as few civilian casualties as possible, while Arab nations and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank need to agree plans for the future of the strip when the fighting is over.
Past Palestinian objections to a two-state solution have wrecked a variety of potential agreements and played into the hands of Israeli hardliners also opposed to such an outcome. This time there needs to be a common purpose or the misery will never end.