Mon, May

Hamas Accepting Ceasefire Proposal Creates a Major Dilemma For Israel


CEASEFIRE - Hamas surprised a great many people on Monday when they accepted the ceasefire proposal that had been developed by Egypt, Qatar, and the United States. The deal was widely described as being the work only of Qatar and Egypt, but the U.S. and, by extension, Israel, had been part of the process. Although the final proposal was drafted, apparently, by Egypt and Qatar based on the talks of the past few weeks, it is a certainty that CIA head Bill Burns, who is in the region right now, was at least consulted on the draft.

The terms of the deal were leaked to Al Jazeera (which Israelis can no longer access). It consists of three phases. In the first, there would be a temporary ceasefire, some hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners, Israeli forces would redeploy eastward and away from major population centers (or what’s left of them), and drones would not fly overhead for 10-12 hours per day.

In the second phase, all Israeli forces would withdraw, and the rest of the living hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. The third phase would entail the return of the remains of bodies held by each side, a five-year reconstruction plan, and an end to the crippling siege of Gaza. No doubt, ending the siege was a major sticking point for Israel. Letting the people of Gaza have even a small measure of freedom is not something most in the Israeli government can stomach.

Ending the siege seems to be a new point, likely added to convince Hamas to reconsider its reaction after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to moot the deal by insisting that a full-scale invasion of Rafah was going to happen regardless of any ceasefire agreement. This, obviously, makes such an agreement worthless. But American verbal guarantees combined with the prospect of ending the siege seem to have enticed Hamas back.

Talks continued, and on Monday, Hamas announced it had accepted what Egypt and Qatar had presented it with. Israel said that deal was not what it had seen. The last version of the deal had the blessing of Israel’s negotiating team, but had not been agreed to by Israel’s government. Whether it would be was still very much in question, as key elements in the government made it clear they did not want Israel to agree.

Netanyahu was quite explicit in stating that he would not agree to ending Israeli operations until Rafah had been reduced to a similar state as most of the rest of Gaza had been. He had the open support of his right wing, but also of opposition figure and war cabinet member Benny Gantz, though Gantz spoke anonymously.

With Israel’s decision to order the evacuation of women, children, and elderly men from the eastern part of Rafah and its major escalation in bombing raids on Sunday and Monday, Hamas recognized that time had run out and they had to either accept the deal or gird themselves for Israel’s massive onslaught.

On Sunday, I had written, “This deal may still be rejected by Hamas, and I would call that a tactical error, as well as an ethical tragedy, on their part if they do choose that path.” Implicit in that sentence was the fact that I didn’t expect Hamas to choose that path.

Wisely, however, they did, and by doing so, they created a massive dilemma for Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister is facing enormous pressure from multiple different directions. His utter indifference to the fate of the Israeli hostages illegally kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 has been dogging him throughout the past seven months, but it has now reached a crescendo. The families of those hostages have escalated their calls for this government’s demise and for a ceasefire that brings their loved ones home. And the support they have from other Israelis has mushroomed, especially recently as more people have been forced to acknowledge that the government’s talk about rescuing the hostages has been utterly empty and phony.

While Israel has seen its standing in the international arena significantly diminished in the past seven months, it has not been at all equivalent to the magnitude of its crimes. But Rafah has been a red line. European and Arab countries recognize that the carnage that will result from an invasion of Rafah will be much greater than even the horrors that have been perpetrated on Gaza for the past seven months. Following Washington’s lead, they have not taken any steps to stem Israel’s bloodlust, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them.

And even the administration of Joe Biden—who, along with his Secretary of State Antony Blinken have shown no compunction or reluctance whatsoever about bathing in the blood of Palestinian children—cannot abide an all-out invasion of Rafah. They know—as has been made clear by courageous and moral students across the United States—that their support for Israel’s genocidal campaign is costing them with the young voter demographic that has been the key to one Democratic victory at the polls after another.

Even Biden and Blinken want Netanyahu to avoid a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah. They want him to agree to this ceasefire deal.

But hanging over Netanyahu’s head is the threat, likely quite sincere, from Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich to quit the government if he agrees to end the “war.” While Blinken has tried to broker a deal where opposition leader Yair Lapid would join the government and save it from collapse if Ben Gvir and Smotrich bolt, Netanyahu doesn’t trust Lapid. He’s probably quite right not to, because while Lapid might save him for now, he will hold the key to the government in his hands and could, and, in time, likely would, bring it down for any one of a lengthy list of reasons.

For Netanyahu, that story could very well end with him in a jail cell. So, he’s not eager to allow Lapid that power.

The Biden administration is being very circumspect so far. They are distancing themselves from the deal, claiming they need to “study Hamas’ response,” which really means looking at what Qatar and Egypt’s draft looks like, even though Biden’s team helped construct that deal.

They are doubtless trying to find a way to encourage a limited Israeli action in Rafah, which has always been their goal. They fully support Israel’s impossible objective of “eliminating” Hamas. But they can’t afford for Israel to be seen as refusing a ceasefire and being the aggressor. Too many people already recognize that reality.

So, Israel is hoping that its decision to continue talking about the proposal will allow it time to gradually escalate in Rafah. Already, they greatly increased attacks in the densely packed district, in response to Hamas’ acceptance of this proposal. The hope is that more attacks will draw a response from Hamas that they can use to allege that Hamas “can’t be reasoned with,” and “must be destroyed.”

Israel has also launched an almost comical campaign to label Hamas’ acceptance of the proposal a “hoax” or a “ruse.” Of course, accepting this proposal—one which Hamas initially had significant doubts about—was a tactical decision, as is every decision any party, governmental or otherwise, reaches to accept or reject a given offer. This doesn’t make the acceptance any less real or legitimate.

These tactics by Israel may succeed. But that success or failure will depend almost entirely on the Biden administration. Biden may press Israel to accept the deal, but it’s unlikely that he will seriously threaten the flow of arms or publicly push too hard for Israel to take the deal, lest he be accused by Republicans and their pro-Israel allies from both parties of trying to make decisions for a “fellow democracy.”

The Biden administration did put a hold on a shipment of ammunition to Israel last week. There is no word on why, but it is possible this was a warning to Netanyahu that when Washington says it cannot support a Rafah invasion, this is what it means.

Hamas did what it should do this time, and not only put Israel in a bind but, more importantly, acted to stem a potential nightmare. But while a ground invasion would be catastrophic, intense air raids over an extended period can do even more damage. And that tactic might be more acceptable to the Biden administration, at least for a while.

Thus, a real ceasefire is crucial right now. It doesn’t solve the underlying problems, but now, the flow of Palestinian blood must be stopped.

(Mitchell Plitnick is President of ReThinking Foreign Policy and author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of "Except for Palestine".)