Comment: Is longer truce in Mideast too much to hope for?

The bargaining to release hostages for prisoners has worked, but overall goals have not changed.

By Daniel DePetris / Chicago Tribune

Last week, I questioned whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas would be able to hammer out a short-term truce that would include the simultaneous release of hostages on both sides.

We received the answer last Tuesday. Working through Qatar, Egypt and the United States, Israel and Hamas reached an agreement that has paused the fighting for six days, compelled Hamas to release more than 50 women and children in its custody (in return for the release of 150 Palestinian women and minors in Israeli jails) and increased the flow of desperately needed humanitarian aid into Gaza. Those exchanges have continued.

Now, I have one more question: What will happen once the arrangement expires?

Compared with the first six weeks of the war, the mood today is a bit brighter; or as bright as it can be under such depressing circumstances. The six-day truce, painfully negotiated over a period of weeks with multiple breakdowns along the way, has worked fairly well. Whatever violations or disagreements that existed have been resolved quickly thanks to Qatar’s diligence as a mediator, which has proved indispensable throughout.

At the time of writing, Hamas has freed more than 50 hostages, including 4-year old American Abigail Edan. More than 100 Palestinian women and minors, most of whom were locked up for nonviolent offenses, have seen their sentences cut short and have been sent back to their families. Trucks continue to stream into Gaza carrying much-needed food, water and fuel, although at this point in the two-month-old war, no amount of aid will compensate for the fact that most of Gaza’s 2 million people are now essentially homeless. Gaza’s reconstruction and rehabilitation will be an expensive and time-consuming task, more so with every day of war that passes.

The humanitarian truce is good news in an otherwise horrific situation, and it has led to some cautious optimism about what could be in store over the coming weeks. During the Thanksgiving holiday, President Joe Biden expressed his hope that the Israel-Hamas truce would be pushed into this week, which in turn could grease the wheels for an end to the war and a more comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

An unnamed Qatari official at the center of the diplomatic effort had a similar assessment: “Our hope is that we build on this progress and the momentum of the last 48 hours can be sustained to extend the pause once the current deal expires and lead to further discussions about a more sustainable agreement to end the violence and bloodshed of civilians.”

On Monday, on the last day of the original four-day truce, those prayers for a longer pause in hostilities were granted. The extension will provide another two days for Hamas to locate and release more hostages, some of whom are being held by smaller Palestinian militant factions. The development serves the interests of both sides. Israel will get more of its citizens out of Hamas’ clutches and perhaps lessen the international opprobrium over its military operations there; Hamas militants will get to breathe for a few more days without Israeli bombers flying overhead.

But let’s assume for a moment that the truce continues to be extended. What then?

The perpetual optimists among us are anticipating or at least hoping that a few more days of calm will eventually entice Israel and Hamas to cut a more comprehensive cease-fire agreement. A cease-fire, in turn, could serve as a catalyst toward broader talks between Israel and the Palestinians, in which the contours of an ever-elusive two-state solution could be drawn up. This is obviously the best-case scenario.

Unfortunately for the optimists, it’s also the least likely. Indeed, given the utter lack of goodwill on both sides and the current political leadership dominating Israel and the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, one could even use the word “delusional.”

For one, Israel has no intention of cutting a cease-fire deal with Hamas. Not now, not ever again. Netanyahu has been down this road on multiple occasions; every single major war with Hamas over the last 15 years (2008-09, 2012, 2014, 2021) eventually ended with a cessation in the fighting that was supposed to establish calm on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border. That worked, until it didn’t. Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel has upended Netanyahu’s containment policy. The strategy Israel employed in the past, a combination of military sticks and economic carrots, is no longer politically sustainable.

Everything Israeli officials have said in the days since the humanitarian truce was implemented suggests Israel retains the same overall objective: Overthrow Hamas rule in Gaza and destroy the organization in its entirety. According to Gen. Herzi Halevi, Israel’s top military officer, Israel will “return immediately at the end of the cease-fire to attacking in Gaza, operating in Gaza.” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant offered much the same sentiment in his remarks: “Any further negotiations will be under fire. Meaning, if they (Hamas) want to continue discussing … it will be while bombs fall and the forces are fighting; that’s the basis.”

Hamas isn’t about to stop fighting either. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ top military official, is a dead man walking. He knows any cease-fire proposal short of Hamas’ full surrender and total demobilization will be rejected outright by the Israelis. Having brought misery, death and further deprivation to Gaza’s people, Hamas is now arguably in its weakest position since it took control of the enclave in 2006.

The bottom line: While the last several days of respite shouldn’t be minimized or overlooked, we would be kidding ourselves if we thought the end of this war was near. That’s the blunt truth.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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