Gaza ceasefire would allow both sides to begin recovery process
In the convoluted discourse of the current war in Gaza, a call for a ceasefire, even a humanitarian one, has become the trigger for accusations of being a Hamas sympathizer. But nothing could be further from the truth. Supporting a ceasefire is simply a desperate call to stop the killing and the suffering of those who, through no fault of their own, are caught up in this war.
Israel’s objectives of ensuring that the atrocities of Oct. 7 never happen again and that the 239 hostages return home safely have been justifiably supported by most of the international community since Day 1. To call for a ceasefire by no means belittles the heinous crimes committed by Hamas that triggered this war. Instead, it is a call to stop innocent Palestinians paying with their lives for crimes committed by others, as Gaza is being reduced to rubble. It is estimated that Israel’s bombardment and its other military activities have already killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, with more than twice that number injured, most of them civilians.
At no point should the appalling deeds perpetrated by Hamas have been taken as a license to inflict immeasurable suffering on 2.3 million people, most of whom are stateless refugees inhabiting this tiny piece of territory. The very same voices in the international community that were raised in support of Israel in one of its darkest moments in the wake of Oct. 7 should have demanded from the outset that the war declared by Israel on Hamas would not become a war on the Palestinians in Gaza.
Israel was caught completely by surprise by Hamas’ attack and it quickly became apparent that there was no ready-made plan to respond to it. While the anger in Israel is understandable and justifiable, it is equally clear that, collectively, a traumatized country and an unprepared government felt forced to respond with its vast military power. On the other hand, it could not clearly articulate its objectives, either in military terms or, more importantly, in political terms, which is a dangerous combination that could only end in the use of excessive force.
Gaza was suffering from a humanitarian crisis long before Oct. 7, whereby 80 percent of its population relied on foreign aid
“Destroy Hamas” might be a pleasing war cry for a very angry Israeli public but, even if it is achievable, this task has been accompanied by the thinking that, in order to minimize casualties among its soldiers, Israel would conduct the war with no regard for civilian casualties among Palestinians. But Israel is a sovereign and democratic state and member of the UN, which puts it under an obligation to comply with standards of behavior that are in line with international law and the rules of war. It is the task of the international community to not remain as a bystander while a humanitarian disaster unfolds.
Gaza was suffering from a humanitarian crisis long before Oct. 7, whereby 80 percent of its population relied on foreign aid. Now it faces a full-blown humanitarian disaster, deriving not only from the huge scale of the killings among its population but also from the rapid deterioration in health conditions due to lack of access to medicine, food, clean water and sanitation, while most hospitals are barely functioning due to the fighting and the intermittent electricity service.
Israel’s forcing of hundreds of thousands to flee from the north of Gaza to the south might have saved some lives, but even in the south of the Strip they are by no means safe. And considering that many are refugees, they are once more displaced and with no access to their basic needs. Most humanitarian organizations that operate in Gaza, chief among them UNRWA, are running out of supplies, while electricity and communication networks are switched on and off by Israel at will.
The fast-deteriorating humanitarian conditions could get much worse, however, because Israel’s objective of destroying Hamas, without defining exactly what that means, might only result in another never-ending war. Will the fighting stop when the last Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants are killed or captured? Will it end once the group’s entire military and political leadership has been eliminated? A commitment to an absolute objective leaves very little room for political maneuvering to stop the fighting and move on to deal with the situation in the political sphere.
Israel’s objective of destroying Hamas, without defining exactly what that means, might only result in another never-ending war
However, as the Israeli army broadens its ground incursions, the Israeli government is constantly keeping an eye on what its allies, especially Washington, are stating publicly, as it calculates how long it might have until the pressure starts mounting for a ceasefire to be agreed. For now, the only clue we have from this quarter of the international community is a slow and grudging change of language that is calling on Israel for more restraint. A growing number of world leaders, including presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron and prime ministers Rishi Sunak and Justin Trudeau, are now expressing their deep concern over the numbers of civilian casualties, with the US and UK last week allowing the passing of a UN Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses. This suggests that the next stage will be a demand for at least a humanitarian ceasefire, if not a complete one.
In the absence of clarity from the US and Europe with regard to a ceasefire, it was UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who last week expressed his concerns by posting on social media: “I am deeply disturbed by the horrible situation and dramatic loss of life in several hospitals in Gaza. In the name of humanity, I call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.” It is for the rest of the international community to get behind the UN chief to ensure that disarming Hamas does not mean the continuing carnage of civilians in Gaza and to begin working for a better future for Gaza — and eventually for all Israelis and Palestinians.
Calling for a ceasefire is not about saving Hamas or suggesting that it should in any shape or form have a role to play in Palestinian politics, but it is instead a call to begin rebuilding a place that has endured so much suffering. It also means starting what will be a long and arduous process for both societies to recover from the trauma they are currently undergoing. When the hostilities cease and the hostages return home to their loved ones, it will be for all involved to internalize that such measures are necessary to prevent any future bloodshed and must only be taken through diplomatic negotiations and painful compromises.
- Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg