What are the chances of a permanent ceasefire?

What are the chances of a permanent ceasefire?

What are the chances of a permanent ceasefire?
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After nearly seven weeks of bloodshed, terror, and horrors in the war between Israel and Hamas, the four-day pause in the fighting, which was subsequently extended by several days, was urgently needed.
To the relief of everyone, the bombardments, the rocket launches and the shootings ceased — if only for a week. The temporary truce agreement allowed for some of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel to be released, and for desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.
These few days of calm were the first rays of hope after one of the darkest periods in the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But now that hostilities have resumed in their full intensity, what does this mean for the likely trajectory of the war in the days and weeks ahead?
There was no guarantee that the pause in fighting would lead to a permanent ceasefire, or even to further humanitarian truces, in the near future. However, it did signal that even though this initially seemed to be a war in which Israel would not call even a temporary halt to its military operations until it had achieved its declared objective of destroying Hamas — whatever that means — it was prepared to alter its priorities to secure the release of as many hostages as possible, even if this meant giving Hamas a chance to regroup. There is no reason to believe that, through third-party negotiations, this pattern will not repeat itself.
Moreover, the truce also indicated that despite the distorted judgment of the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist organization, which manifested itself in its most extreme form in the Oct. 7 attacks, the realization filtered through to them that it was in their own best interest to release their hostages, especially the most vulnerable among them.
The pause in fighting in the past week yielded political benefits for both sides. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government had been under immense pressure, justifiably so, to prioritize the release of hostages. The joyful sight of dozens of them returning home from captivity eased some of that pressure.
At the same time, it handed Hamas the prize status of being seen as the power within Palestinian society capable of bringing about the release of Palestinian prisoners so that they could be reunited with their families. This, at least temporarily, strengthens its position in relation to the Palestinian Authority, and enhances its narrative that the only way to free Palestinians from Israeli jails is by holding Israeli citizens hostage.
While the truce agreement, mediated and facilitated by Qatar, Egypt, and the US, could prove to be a watershed moment in this tragic war, the final chapter is far from being written and it remains to be seen whether it will be repeated any time soon.
Understandably, much of the focus over the past week has been on the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. Nevertheless, also of great importance was the fact that the pause in hostilities gave the people of Gaza a brief respite from the horrors of war, and allowed humanitarian aid to reach them: food, water, emergency medical supplies, and winter clothing. This is aid that is literally lifesaving for hundreds of thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed or who were forcibly displaced from northern Gaza to the south.
This mechanism for humanitarian aid must remain in place and functional even though fighting has resumed; that aid  is essential for the survival of civilians of all ages.

The pause in hostilities gave the people of Gaza a brief respite from the horrors of war.

Yossi Mekelberg

Negotiations for the release of the remaining Israeli hostages will only be more complex, however. Hamas has its sights set on the release of other high-value prisoners in Israeli jails, and knows they will not be freed as long as it continues to hold the most vulnerable among the remaining Israeli hostages, including children and the elderly, some of whom reportedly have serious health conditions.
The militant group is most interested in bringing about the release of Palestinians sentenced to long terms, including those Israel classifies as having “blood on their hands” and so is more reluctant to release.
It was reported that during meetings last week between Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, CIA Director William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, and Egypt’s head of the General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, negotiators outlined five categories of Israeli hostages for future release: men too old for military reserve duty, female soldiers, male reservists, active-duty male soldiers, and the bodies of those who died before or during captivity.
This suggests future negotiations could be prolonged and much more difficult and complex than the talks that led to the phased release of hostages and prisoners in the past week, especially now that Israeli military operations have resumed in full force.
Each side has objectives that clash with those of the other. They are likely to complicate the negotiations and, to a large extent, are behind the resumption of hostilities. The Israeli leadership argues that military pressure persuaded Hamas to agree to release hostages. As true as this might be, declaring the elimination of Hamas to be Israel’s main objective does not exactly motivate the group to give up the main asset it is left with — hostages — unless a permanent ceasefire is agreed.
Meanwhile, any deal that results in Israel agreeing to free more Palestinian prisoners on a large scale could improve the political standing of Hamas among Palestinians, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank and the wider diaspora.
Israeli officials could have done themselves a favor, at the very least for the sake of improving the chances of reaching a comprehensive exchange of hostages and prisoners, had they toned down the rhetoric about eliminating the Hamas leadership — or in threatening Qatar, as one senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official did in a comment about settling scores after the war because of Doha’s supposed support for Hamas, a statement that defies logic at this point.
Now that the war is raging again, it remains to be seen whether the international community can convince Israel that military operations cannot continue to be conducted without regard for the massive loss of life among Palestinians and the complete destruction of Gaza, and cannot go on for much longer. There are real fears for what might happen in southern Gaza, where many of those displaced from the north of the territory have sought refuge.
It might be the case — and I hope this is not simply wishful thinking — that Israel has been reassessing the methods for achieving its war objectives and might take a longer-term view. It might realize that military force is not the only way to tackle Hamas and that achieving its objectives will primarily require political and diplomatic efforts that can guarantee a better future in which everyone involved in this conflict, and future generations, enjoys equality in terms of security, rights, and prosperity.
Even if this feels like a remote possibility right now, it is not one that is impossible to achieve.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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