James M. Dorsey

Thinking the unthinkable: Israeli occupation instead of a ceasefire

Israel campaigns against Palestine Authority

A former Israeli hostage negotiator suggests Hamas may be willing to shift the paradigm in Gaza ceasefire negotiations.

The problem is that Israel is not interested, while Hamas’ commitment to the idea is unclear.

Moreover, negotiations mediated by the United States, Qatar, and Egypt have for months failed to bridge the gap between Hamas’s demand that a ceasefire be permanent and entail a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Israel’s insistence that the war will continue after a temporary pause that would allow for a prisoner exchange.

Even so, the suggestion has intriguing implications.

Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the exchange in 2011 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity for 1,027 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, including Hamas’ Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, disclosed the Hamas proposal.

“From my experience with Hamas (18 years of discussions and negotiations), they say what they mean and mean what they say. In my opinion…Israel should conduct a secret direct channel with Hamas in order to reach a deal and minimize dangers and risks as much as possible. I know that about a month ago, Hamas was ready for a secret direct channel, but Israel was not ready,” Mr Baskin said.

In a text message, Mr. Baskin said Israel’s negotiating team refused to entertain the proposal.

That was no surprise. There was no way Mr. Netanyahu would give the recognition and empowerment direct contact would entail to Hamas, an organization he vows to destroy at enormous cost to innocent Palestinians and the future of their next generation. Whether successful or not, direct ceasefire negotiations would strengthen Hamas as it maneuvers to retain control of post-war Gaza.

Moreover, direct contact would risk forcing Israel into negotiations about a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a proposition Mr. Netanyahu has consistently rejected. Direct contact would also amount to an admission of Israeli failure to achieve its war goals – the destruction of Hamas and the freeing of Hamas-held hostages – and recognition that Hamas will likely play a role in shaping post-war Gaza and a resolution of the conflict.

To be sure, Israel, Hamas, and Palestinians at large are worlds apart on whether a two-state solution is desirable and what it would would entail. Nevertheless, Hamas could potentially alter the dynamic of the ceasefire negotiations by publicly calling for direct talks. However, doing so would impact what increasingly looks like Hamas and Israel’s shared vision of a war that would continue for some time to come.

Mr. Netanyahu’s national security advisor, Tzachi Hanegbi, predicted last month that “the fighting in Gaza will continue for at least another seven months,” reaffirming Israel’s insistence that it has no intention to halt hostilities permanently. Similarly, Hamas’ Beirut-based spokesman, Osama Hamdan, suggested the war could continue for another two years despite the group’s insistence that a ceasefire explicitly be labeled as permanent or sustained.

“The Israeli army is exhausted… The IDF is beginning to realize that it has entered a war of attrition in Gaza. (Netanyahu) says he has dismantled all the resistance battalions. The resistance is fighting everywhere…(Israel) has dismantled the battalions… This army two years forward will not be able to fight a major war after the ceasefire in Gaza,” Mr. Hamdan said, referring to the Israeli military by its acronym.

Implicit in Mr. Hamdan’s remarks is the suggestion that Hamas, like Israel, may not achieve its war goals – a permanent ceasefire and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – any time soon. Instead, Mr. Hamdan appears to hold out the possibility of Israel being Gaza’s occupying force for the foreseeable future, with Hamas embroiling it in a guerilla-style insurgency. “We have the Israelis right where we want them,” Mr. Sinwar reportedly said in a recent message to Hamas’ ceasefire negotiators.

Hamas is not alone in thinking that Israel is likely to get further sucked into Gaza, despite much of the international community wanting to see its departure from the Strip and a credible post-war Palestinian administration.

“In two years, Gaza will be a rubble-ridden set of tent camps policed by the Israeli military. In other words, Israel will occupy the Gaza Strip, even if it refuses to admit it. Israel also will still be battling militants, be they from Hamas or some other group,” predicted journalist Nahal Toosi.

Israeli officials, including Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, have insisted that Israel will retain security control of Gaza but has no intention of returning to administering the Strip. Instead, Israel envisions a Palestinian administration under its tutelage.

Commenting on the seemingly stalled efforts to mediate a ceasefire, scholar Andreas Krieg argued that “Sinwar and Netanyahu have the same interest in prolonging the war. Draw a Venn diagram; it’s hard to see where the overlapping interests are that would allow a pause and hostage swap.”

Like in Israel, where mass protests demand prioritization of the release of Hamas-held hostages rather than prosecution of the war, a majority of Gazans expressed support for continued armed struggle in a recent opinion poll, even if they are desperate to see an end to the current fighting.

For Gazans, wanting a ceasefire, favoring armed struggle, and blaming Hamas for the failure of negotiations are not contradictory.

“Following Hamas’s latest response (to US President Joe Biden’s ceasefire proposal), there is now unprecedented discontent and frustration within Gaza. The population is increasingly critical of (Hamas’) leadership, describing its actions as unwise and irresponsible towards the suffering and pain of Gaza’s residents,” said Nazir Majali, an Israel-based analyst with Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Even so, the recent survey suggested that Hamas’ insistence on armed struggle is not at odds with a majority of Gazans’ views. Fifty-six per cent of those polled by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research supported armed struggle as the way to end Israel’s occupation compared to 24 per cent who favored negotiations and 19 per cent who opted for non-violent resistance.

Even so, the number of Gazans who expect Hamas to win the war dropped to 48 per cent compared to 56 per cent three months ago. Forty-six percent expect Hamas to be in control of post-war Gaza, as opposed to four per cent who believe the Israeli military will be in charge.

Larry Garber, a former West Bank and Gaza USAID mission director and observer of past Palestinian elections, cautioned that a post-war plan “will require buy-in by different segments of Palestinian society, including leaders of pre-existing geographic communities, representatives of civil society organizations and business associations, and women and those falling within the 20-35-year-old cohort, who now represent a significant percentage of the population.”

For its part, Hamas appears not to be taking anything for granted.

“With thousands of its fighters still alive, Hamas is feverishly searching for new ways to stay in charge once a ceasefire is in place. Behind the facade of a Palestinian alliance, it has offered to relinquish civilian control—but only for the sake of refreshing its military arsenal, rebuilding its tunnel networks, and recruiting fresh manpower,” said veteran Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari, who met Mr. Sinwar when he was still in an Israeli prison.

As a result, Hamas leaders are, on the one hand, preparing for a prolonged insurgency, in part by dissuading Arab states from participating in an international peacekeeping force.

“Sinwar has proven to be by far the toughest Arab negotiator in the entire history of the conflict, and he—unlike (the late Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat—is not easily intimidated or pressured by Arab despots,” tweeted scholar and activist Asad Abukhalil.

On the other hand, to ensure foreign aid in reconstructing the devastated Strip, Hamas is seeking to engineer a scenario in which the group is dominant in post-war Gaza but shares power with other Palestinian groups that support reconciliation with Al Fatah, Hamas’ archrival and the backbone of President Mahmoud Abbas’ internationally recognized, West Bank-based Palestine Authority.

If successful, Hamas’ maneuvering could see the emergence of the United Arab Emirates, a major aid donor, as an influential player in Palestinian politics with the return of Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based, UAE-backed Palestinian politician and former security chief.

Hamas officials have repeatedly met with Mr. Dahlan over the last six months to secure his and Emirati backing for its post-war vision, which Qatar also supports. It remains unclear whether the UAE, which is virulently opposed to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, has endorsed Mr. Dahlan’s engagement with Hamas.

That may be one reason Mr. Dahlan has avoided clarifying whether he wishes to play a role in post-war Gaza while dispatching close aides to Egypt to help coordinate Emirati aid to Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz this week launched a campaign in a video entitled ‘The Palestinian Authority cannot rule Gaza’ to convince the United States and Europe to abandon their “misguided” support for the Authority and recognize that the future of Gaza and the region depends on “making the right decisions now.”

A senior foreign ministry official insisted Western nations needed to recognize that the future of Gaza and the region depended on “making the right decisions now.”

Exploiting the Authority’s loss of credibility among Palestinians, the official charged that it educate(s) Palestinian children to hate Israel and glorif(ies) ‘martyrdom.’ Their leaders deny the October 7th massacre and express support for Hamas’ actions.”

Connecting all the dots, what becomes evident is that Messrs. Netanyahu and Sinwar are maneuvering in anticipation of the next phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without experiencing the kind of pressure that would persuade them to change course.

As a result, ceasefire negotiations have been reduced to both Israel and Hamas seeking to ensure that the other is blamed for their failure.

Hamas knows that pressure on Qatar to expel the group is unlikely to work because it would complicate already complex ceasefire negotiations. It would force Hamas to base itself in countries like Iran, Syria, Turkey, or Lebanon that are likely unwilling or unable to play a constructive mediating role.

Similarly, Mr. Netanyahu has consistently defied US verbal and diplomatic pressure to alter Israel’s conduct of the war and seriously negotiate a permanent ceasefire, even if US President Joe Biden’s recent allegedly Israeli-endorsed ceasefire proposal and the resignation of war cabinet members Benny Gantz and Gabi Eisenkot has put the prime minister between a rock and a hard place.

A recent CIA assessment concluded that Mr. Netanyahu is likely to reject US pressure to establish a post-war plan for Gaza. The assessment added that the prime minister likely judges he can get away without defining such a plan.

Given Mr. Netanyahu’s defiance, Mr. Biden is left with the one option he has so far refused to embrace: real pression in the form of and/or the conditioning or halt of US arms supplies to Israel, suspension of economic aid, or halting US diplomatic defense of Israel in the United Nations Security Council and other multilateral institutions.

Domestic concerns hamper Mr. Biden in the run-up to the November presidential elections, as well as the fact that he agrees with Israel’s war goals, even if he disagrees with the way Israel seeks to achieve them.

“Netanyahu’s deliberate and frequent confrontations with the United States are damaging to its image as a power broker with effective levers of influence on Israel. Until now, Biden did little about it. The absence of a hostage and cease-fire deal may force him to consider a change in policy. The Americans’ best bet would be to affect or hope for indigenous political change in Israel. That is easier said than done,” said columnist Anschel Pfeffer.

Meanwhile, Arab states have reinforced Palestinian fears that the Arab world has dropped support of their struggle despite condemnations of Israel’s war conduct and high-level meetings belaboring their plight – one reason Hamas launched its October 7 attack, killing more than 1,100 primarily Israeli and foreign civilians and kidnapping 250 others.

Arab states, concerned about enhanced Iranian influence as a result of the Gaza war, and unwilling to put their relations with the United States at risk, signaled earlier this week that, like Mr. Biden, that there are limits to their support of Palestinian rights and quest for an end to the war.

Israeli intransigence in ceasefire negotiations and Hamas’ insistence on terms it knows Israel will reject did not stop senior Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian, Egyptian, and Bahraini military commanders from meeting in Manama earlier this week with Israeli chief of staff General Herzi Halevi under the auspices of General Michel “Erik” Kurilla, the head of the US Central Command.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted the meeting, which he did not attend, may have been about post-war arrangements in Gaza. The Biden administration has urged Arab states to contribute to a possible peacekeeping force and reconstruction of Gaza.

“In the coming weeks, we will put forward proposals for key elements of a day-after plan, including concrete ideas for how to manage governance, security, reconstruction,” Mr. Blinken said as the generals met.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

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About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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