By Rajan Philips –
After nearly fifty days of scorching there is a ceasefire in Gaza. After it finally began at 7:00 AM on Friday following some initial hiccups, 24 hostages have been released by Hamas. In return, Israel has freed 39 Palestinian prisoners comprising 24 women and 15 teenagers, many of whom have been in jail for several years on charges of stone throwing, stabbing and rioting. The released hostages are mostly women and children along with farmworkers from Thailand, underscoring the international pressure behind the urgency for freeing hostages.
Israel has indicated that it would agree to more pauses and more freeing of Palestinian prisoners in return for additional releases of hostages by Hamas. The first stage human barter involves a total of 240 hostages and 300 prisoners. The hope in Washington appears to be that the current pause rather than relentless war will become the new medium for navigating through the post October 7 crisis. Informed observers are also suggesting that the Biden Administration seems committed for the long haul in pursuing whatever avenues that may open up for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Agreeing to a ceasefire with Hamas and exchange of hostages and prisoners is a comedown for the Netanyahu government after its arrogant insistence that Hamas must be destroyed before any ceasefire could be considered. And contrary to Mr. Netanyahu’s claim on Friday that the freeing of the hostages is a fulfillment of one of the objectives of the war, it is the ceasefire and not the fighting that is enabling the release of both the hostages and the Palestinian prisoners. For humanitarian agencies and the truly heroic doctors within borders in Gaza, the respite means more supplies of medical and livelihood essentials.
While the horror of the Hamas attack justified some retaliation by Israel, there was no justification whatsoever for the Netanyahu government to use it as carte blanche to devastate Gaza. It was the scale of devastation and the humanitarian crisis, as well as the international mix of the hostages, that finally pushed the Biden Administration to pressurize the Israeli government. There has been worldwide condemnation of the government’s relentless onslaughts in Gaza. At the UN, Israel and the US became isolated, except for a dozen or so minion countries who have been voting with them in opposition to UN resolutions critical of Israel. Modi’s Hindutva India too isolated itself from its traditional and natural allies in the Global South by siding with Israel and the US at some of the UN votes.
There have been protests everywhere, but mostly in the Arab world and in the western countries – ironically, all of them targeting Israeli and western governments. The US is not spared. Biden has heard an earful from within his own Democratic Party and even internally within the State Department – where officials, post-Vietnam-war, are allowed to voice their dissent internally in writing to official policy positions. Gaza is a no-brainer for expressing disagreement with the Administration. And dissent may have done its part in pushing the Administration to push for a ceasefire deal after vehemently rejecting it for weeks on end.
Even for Netanyahu, the pressure became overwhelming. “We need this deal,” Netanyahu told Brett McGurk, Biden’s Middle East coordinator, according to CNN. This was on November 14, in Tel Aviv, after the Israeli Prime Minister had indicated to President Biden that the Israeli government was ready to “accept the broad contours of a deal” with Hamas. The deal is the result of diplomatic efforts by Qatar, the oil rich state of 300,000 people that is turning itself into being a global mediator.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in Qatar’s own backyard, and it has intimate access to all the principal players in the conflict. President Biden calls Qatar America’s most important non-NATO ally, which provides accommodation to a significant US military base. Hamas too has its political offices in Qatar and benefits from Qatari largesse. The country is close enough to Israel for Netanyahu to detail his Mossad chief David Barnea to negotiate with Qatar to work out a deal for freeing the hostages. Mr. Barnea and CIA chief William Burns have had joint meetings with Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, in parallel with meetings between Qatari mediators and Hamas officials based in Qatar.
The fact of the matter is that despite their vehement disavowals of Hamas, both the US and Israel have been dealing with Hamas through Qatar. The habitat that Hamas has in Qatar is not without American consent. Netanyahu’s stratagem has been to use Hamas to frustrate the emergence of a democratic administration among Palestinians. He would rather have Hamas around to frustrate the universal call for a two-state solution. October 7 has shattered that scheme. It has also shattered President Biden’s now well-reported strategic decision not to touch the Palestinian question during his term (or terms) in office. He wanted to avoid a problem that carried plenty of political risks and no prospect for a solution.
In his voluminous memoir, White House Years, Henry Kissinger speaks of a different turning point that occurred more than fifty ago. That was the turning point for America’s effectiveness in the Middle East, and it apparently came with the realization among Arab leaders that the path to settlement with Israel would not be via Moscow, but Washington. At the height of the Cold War, the Americans were not expecting this, and according to Kissinger, they were also slow to respond because their priority then was the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Arab leaders saw the dead-ending of Moscow sooner than the Americans.
Over the years and after the end of the Cold War, American Presidents have made varying efforts to find a path for peace in the Middle East through Washington. Nothing worked, and everything crashed during the Trump presidency and Netanyahu’s premiership. After October 7, Arab and Palestinian leaders cannot be hopeful about Washington as their predecessors were fifty years ago. Their dilemma is also that there is no one else who can step in.
China is making plenty of peace waves, but it has a long way to go before it can become an influential player for conflict resolution either in the Middle East or anywhere else. And the Palestinians do not deserve to have to wait for China to come of age as a full superpower to solve a problem that is as old as China itself. But China can add its significant weight to initiate a process for peace in the Middle East. Its call for an international peace conference is not bad in theory, but is unlikely to find traction either with Israel or the US. But pressurizing Washington from the outside is most welcome, and that will add to the pressure that is already building within the US and western countries in general.
The pressures within western polities and schisms over Gaza are quite unprecedented. The far right that has been stridently antisemitic is now staunchly pro-Israel. The far left that has always been opposed to antisemitism is now being accused of antisemitism because of its opposition to the Israeli government and the refusal to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization. The political terrain in the middle is now the site of new fissures and fractures.
In the US, the youth, progressives and Muslims who voted for Biden in 2020 are threatening that they will not vote for him in 2024. This could be crucial in critical swing states where the margin of victory is small and defeat would mean disaster in the Electoral College tally. In Britain, Labour leader Keir Starmer has come under fire for refusing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. This is quite the reversal for the Labour Party leadership that accused Jeremy Corbin, Starmer’s predecessor, of antisemitism. In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau is doing a fine balancing act between pro-Palestinian Muslims and the influential Jewish community. The backdrop to these fissures is old school racism spewing both antisemitism and Islamophobia.
One of the more positive political fallouts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the firing of Suella Braverman (nee Fernandes), Britain’s pseudo-racist Tory politician of colour, from cabinet by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. This was after she criticized London Police for allowing pro-Palestinian marches in the City, and called them “hate marches.” Mr. Sunak used the occasion of Braverman’s eviction to execute a mini cabinet shuffle and bring in former Prime Minister David Cameron as the new Foreign Minister, to consolidate his (Sunak’s) position in the Party. On the other hand, there have been right wing populist victories, although not outright, in Argentina and in Netherlands. Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric were patent factors in the Dutch election.
After the usual hiccups including sporadic fighting to the last minute, the ceasefire started at 7:00 AM local time on Friday, a day later than originally scheduled. Lorries of essential supplies began entering Gaza from Egypt before the exchange of hostages and prisoners. Altogether 50 hostages are expected to be released over four days along with the freeing of 150 Palestinian prisoners. David Cameron, the new British Foreign Secretary, is in Israel is in Israel meeting with Palestinian leaders and facilitating the inflow of supplies into Gaza. What will happen after the current ceasefire agreement is over?
Will fighting resume with a vengeance, or will there be more pauses to facilitate further releases of hostages in exchange for prisoners? Israel’s offer to release 300 Palestinian prisoners is seen as an incentive to Hamas to release more hostages. Hamas may respond positively, but a deadlock will arise if and when Hamas stops releasing hostages to maintain the only leverage it has in the current situation. It could become a numbers game, with Hamas insisting on the release of larger numbers of Palestinians from the reportedly 7,200 currently in jail. 88 of them are women and 250 are children under 17, most of whom are expected to be released in the current phase.
The US is now back on to the two-state formula, but it will have a hard time nudging Mr. Netanyahu to embark on any long-term settlement process. The Israeli Prime Minister has his own short-term problems. After seven weeks of devastating Gaza, there is admission that the operation has hurt Hamas’s fighting resources, but it is no where near the goal of eradicating Hamas. And there is still no hard evidence of what Israel has been able to achieve militarily. And there is no evidence either to substantiate Israel’s biggest propaganda claim that the al-Shifa hospital was being used by Hamas as its operation centre with a network of tunnels.
The al-Shifa hospital is located where Britain had its Army barracks, which later turned into a civilian hospital. In its current form and structure, al-Shifa was designed by Israeli architects to include multiple basements, and was built by the Israeli government in the 1980s, as part of improving the living conditions in Gaza. That was when the idea of co-existence in a two-state set up was actively pursued. After Netanyahu’s long spells as Prime Minister, the two-state solution has been shelved away, and al-Shifa has become a war zone. The US has its work cut out in bringing it back to the table. More immediately, however, it will have to find a way to stop Prime Minister Netanyahu from resuming the war after its current pause.