Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that a military operation in Rafah was necessary to ensure victory in the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza strip.
The four-day humanitarian pause-cum-ceasefire mediated by Qatar in consultation with the US was implemented after approval of the Israeli cabinet. As per the agreement, operations would be stalled for this duration. Under the settlement, Hamas would release 50 hostages, mainly women and children, while Israel would free 150 minors and women prisoners. The names of those being released would be announced in advance and they would be set free in batches.
As part of the agreement, the Red Cross will be given access to the remaining hostages in Gaza including supplying them with medicines. The pause was also for movement of humanitarian aid, including fuel, for Palestinians trapped in Gaza, with 300 trucks arriving daily. However, actual figures are far lesser. Hamas stated that the hostages being released would only be civilians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli PM mentioned that he is willing to extend the ceasefire provided 10 hostages are released daily. There has been no acceptance of this offer by Hamas till date. Netanyahu cautioned his cabinet by stating: “We are at war and we will continue the war until we achieve all our goals, which is to destroy Hamas, return all our hostages and ensure that no entity in Gaza can threaten Israel.”
This appears to hint at an Israeli intention to suspend operations in case hostages are released. Both sides have claimed victory in the ceasefire. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chief stated that it was their military pressure which created conditions for release of hostages. Historically, whenever there has been a truce, even if temporary, Hamas has claimed victory, being the weaker force. This was no different. The initial Hamas intent of taking hostages was to secure release of its people from Israeli prisons and it has done so.
The Israeli leadership has been facing flak from families of hostages who have been protesting non-stop in Tel Aviv including displaying a white table with 240 chairs each marking a hostage. Rejecting the pause would have placed the Israeli government under greater domestic pressure. Pressure to give priority to release of hostages will continue. Simultaneously, Israeli troops would remain deployed in Gaza for a prolonged duration.
This would necessitate additional forces to secure lines of communication. In case the truce prolongs, Israel would unwittingly be drawn into the management of Gaza, which it has sought to avoid. Continued military service of reservists would impact the Israeli economy. Israel’s budget deficit has grown by 400 per cent and almost half a million dual-citizens from its eight million population have left the country, including 50,000 foreign workers. Tourism has come to a standstill hurting the economy.
The Israeli currency, Shekel, has lost 15 per cent of its value, while shares of its major banks have dropped 20 per cent. Over a million Israelis are forced to stay in shelters away from their homes slowing down economic activities. Militarily, Israeli forces are strengthening their positions, gaining information on Hamas deployments as also inputs on its tunnels while tapping intelligence sources to obtain locations of remaining hostages. The IDF would resupply its troops enabling them to be ready for the next phase of operations, while attempting to clear the region of civilians.
This will allow Israel to launch swift operations in case the need arises and also be able to effectively destroy Hamas tunnels. Every action by the IDF would be observed by Hamas. The truce agreement also limits Israeli employment of drones to a few hours each day. This permits Hamas to regroup, rearm and readjust their forces. In case operations recommence, Hamas would hope to be better prepared to challenge Israeli forces. While Israel claims to have destroyed 500 tunnels and killed thousands of Hamas troops, it is unlikely that Hamas has been neutralised.
However, a prolonged truce and continued suffering of civilians would reduce Hamas’ control over Gaza. There are already reports of Hamas police members being attacked for claiming priority rights over aid. Reconstruction of Gaza would take over a decade. The other aspect is whether the truce with Hamas would extend to that with Hezbollah. If it does, then it would bring peace to the region, which has witnessed unwarranted violence and loss of thousands of innocent lives. However, in the long term it would be just another case of Israel gaining a few years of tranquillity before Hamas recreates its capabilities and challenges the Israeli defence forces again.
A successful pause with release of hostages could also lead to internal and external pressures being brought on the Israeli government to persist with negotiations for return of the balance hostages rather than resort to operations resulting in civilian casualties to Gazans. The swap coming after over a month of fighting is not a win-win situation, considering the thousands of lives lost on both sides as also the destruction. Both sides began the conflict with different aims and neither has succeeded. Israel has refused to bow down and Hamas has not been made redundant. In addition, Israeli PM, Netanyahu is facing a possible ouster while protests in Gaza are challenging the power and control of Hamas. Further, Hamas, which had hoped for support from the Muslim world, has been disappointed. The Arab-Islamic summit displayed how fragmented the regional environment is when it refused to adopt stricter measures against Israel.
Simultaneously, global support for Tel Aviv to continue with the conflict is receding rapidly. The chair summary issued by South Africa, after the conclusion of the extraordinary BRICS virtual summit, is a case in point. There is also a view that for both sides continuing the war is beneficial. Netanyahu can only hope to recreate his political career if he is able to largely degrade Hamas’s war fighting abilities, post regaining his hostages.
For Hamas, unless it gains victory, protests against it could gather steam resulting in it losing control in Gaza. Preventing such a scenario from emerging should be the global intent. While Israel would still survive as a nation even if Netanyahu goes, Gaza would find it difficult post the removal of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza nor is any other country willing to coordinate its reconstruction. Unless those negotiating the ceasefire look ahead, the scenario can again darken.