Pressure builds for truce in Gaza conflict

9 February 2024

Pressure is mounting on Israel to accede to a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange agreement after a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and amid ongoing negotiations between the warring parties under Egyptian and Qatari mediation.

Blinken’s visit focused on nudging Israel towards some sort of ceasefire agreement that would see the release of the hostages, but the US overture was again rebuffed by the Netanyahu government, which continues to bristle at the prospect of a truce.

As if in reaction to the pressure, the Israeli side has ratcheted up its own rhetoric again in the past week. It has asserted that its goal remains the complete dismantling of Hamas, and announced that it would launch a military operation in Rafah, the Egypt-Gaza border crossing area and a designated safe zone.

Nevertheless, there is dwindling political space, both internationally and domestically, for the Israeli government to manoeuvre away from a truce. Even Israel’s allies are tiring of the conflict and anger is building in Israel over the failure to secure the return of the hostages.

For more neutral parties around the world, the indictment of Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for plausibly committing crimes amounting to genocide has doubled up the existing risk of complicity with war crimes with the risk of complicity with genocide.

The case has changed the calculus for governments and companies with ties to Israel. It has already led to counteractions, including the suspension of export licences by the government of the Belgian province of Wallonia – in addition to an existing arms suspension by Spain.

In Japan, major arms manufacturer Itochu announced that its aviation arm would end its collaboration with Israel’s largest weapons company, Elbit Systems, citing the ICJ ruling, Japan’s respect for the court, and its obligation to avoid complicity.

Mismatched expectations

Back at the negotiating table, Hamas has itself increased the pressure on Israel by establishing its own amenability to a ceasefire and hostage release – suggesting a three-phased release of Israeli hostages on one side and Palestinian prisoners and administration detainees on the other side.

Each phase would last 45 days, for a total term of 135 days, with the first phase focusing on the release of detained Israeli women, children, elderly and the sick in exchange for 1,500 Palestinian detainees.

The second phase would then see male detainees released, followed by the bodies of those killed in the fighting or during the siege and bombardment of the Gaza Strip in the third phase.

Hamas also stated the requirement that at least 500 trucks of aid and fuel be allowed into the Gaza Strip daily, that residents have freedom of movement, and that border crossings be opened.

The Hamas deal outline also contained requirements unlikely to appeal to the Israeli government. These include the requirement that 60,000 temporary homes and 300,000 tents be let into the strip and that Israel commit to rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure within three years.

The demand not just for the delivery of humanitarian aid – as already obliged to be provided under international law and as reiterated by the ICJ – but for actual material assistance appears almost fantastical given the fanatical tilt of much of Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet.

Pressure from all sides

The Israeli government’s immediate response to Hamas’ outline was one of dismissal and pushback. While this was expected, there remains considerable momentum behind the scenes for some sort of a deal under the multilateral negotiations in Egypt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chosen response was to state off camera that Israel would not end the war but push on to “total victory” over Hamas. Yet behind the bluster of this reaction, the news was floated that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was studying the terms.

Meanwhile, those close to the deal remain optimistic about a positive outcome in another one to two weeks. Such a timescale would also benefit Israel by allowing it to present the deal as proof of progress under the ICJ provisional measures that it is required to report on at the end of the month.

The other deadline is the start of Ramadan on 9 March, when Muslims around the globe are bound by faith to pay particular attention to those less fortunate around them. The optics for Israel, and in turn for the US, will be disastrous if the unfettered killing continues in this period.

In his pre-departure remarks, Blinken reiterated the US position that Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza were too high and affirmed that there was “space” for a potential truce agreement in a clear contradiction of Netanyahu’s messaging.

This repudiation of the Israeli position has become part of a discernible pattern of commentary from the US establishment in recent days that gives the appearance that Washington is increasingly interested in distancing itself from the Israeli government.

After four months of unconditional support for Israel, and amid flagging US presidential polling numbers in connection with the ongoing violence, a recalibration is under way – with Joe Biden late on 8 February declaring Israel’s actions “over the top”.

Former US secretary of state and Democrat insider Hillary Clinton was also interviewed in a move that appears highly choreographed to blame Netanyahu for failing the hostages while labelling him “not trustworthy” and calling for him to leave office.

The upshot of all this is that despite the resistance to a deal from the Israeli government, external and internal pressure is now reaching the point where resisting a ceasefire is incurring an exorbitant political cost – one that even Netanyahu may find himself unable to pay.

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John Bambridge
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