It is time the US considers Hamas’s survival in Gaza

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Three days into the four-day truce between Israel and Hamas, the agreement appears to hold and there is even talk of extending it. By Monday, 50 Israeli women and children are supposed to have been exchanged for 150 Palestinian women and children, with mediators hinting that the deal could continue for a few more days through the same formula.

Although the conditions of the truce resemble similar ones put forward by Qatari mediators in recent weeks, Israel’s war cabinet has insisted it was the result of military pressure it had exerted on Hamas. But only a few weeks ago, the government was vowing to free its hostages by force.

 

By assenting to the terms of the release, Israel has shown that it can, in fact, negotiate with Hamas, tacitly conceding that it is no closer to eradicating a group that has gone, quite literally, underground. If anything, by laying waste to much of Gaza City and, with it, the institutions of Hamas governance, Israel’s actions have only made the group more elusive.

That much was made clear by the Israeli army’s siege and raid of Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, which failed to produce conclusive evidence that there was a Hamas-operated command centre there, as it had claimed. Instead, the operation against al-Shifa, which was anticlimactic at best, added to growing scepticism that Israel, with American backing, can uproot Hamas from Gaza.

It is time this reality is recognised in the halls of power in Washington. The Biden administration must abandon unrealistic Israeli rhetoric about “ending Hamas” and embrace a more attainable political solution that factors in the movement’s survival.

Mounting deaths, shifting public opinion

Proof of Israel’s faltering mission can be found in the war’s bloody dividends. Its air and ground assault, which Defence Minister Yoav Gallant vowed would wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth”, has so far failed to halt Palestinian fighters’ ambushes of Israeli positions or the near-daily volley of rockets lobbed at Israeli cities.

Now in its seventh week, the war has instead killed more than 14,800 Palestinians, including some 6,100 children, levelled residential neighbourhoods and refugee camps, and displaced more than a million people across the besieged strip.

Military analysts had claimed that the massive bombing campaign would “soften” Hamas positions ahead of Israel’s ground invasion, limiting the group’s ability to wage urban warfare in the densely built enclave. But in recent weeks, some US officials, echoing reports in the Israeli media, have started to concede that Israel’s unrelenting bombing has failed to neutralise Hamas’s battle capabilities.

 

Tolerance for Israel’s actions also appears to be declining. On November 10, French President Emmanuel Macron became the first G-7 leader to call for a ceasefire. On November 24, the prime ministers of Spain and Belgium criticised Israel’s “indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians” and the destruction of “the society of Gaza”. Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish premier, even vowed to unilaterally recognise Palestinian statehood.

In the US, the Biden administration may be standing by their Israeli ally, but public opinion is swiftly shifting in favour of a permanent ceasefire. Mass demonstrations calling for a ceasefire have been held across the country and several large US cities, including Atlanta, Detroit and Seattle, have passed resolutions echoing this call.

 

A recent poll showed that only 32 percent of Americans believe their country “should support Israel” in its war on Gaza. Having left little daylight between his stance on the war and Israel’s prosecution of it, US President Joe Biden has already seen his poll numbers slip.

Public pressure may have encouraged not only Washington to push for the hostage exchange, but also the Israeli government to accept it. In addition to the backlash he has faced from families of the Hamas-held hostages, reports indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pressed on the exchange by Israel’s security services and military.

Although Netanyahu, Gallant, and former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who sits in the current war cabinet, have all declared that the war on Hamas would continue, public pressure could make them walk back on this intention, too.

 

The conflict is already taking a heavy toll on the Israeli economy, which is losing over a quarter billion dollars a day. It is expected to contract by 1.5 percent in 2024, as the fighting has disrupted air travel and cargo and the recent hijacking of an Israeli-linked ship may even threaten sea transportation.

Then there are the tens of thousands of Israelis displaced from areas along the Gaza and Lebanon borders as well as all the families of the hostages calling for all to be released. The ongoing truce has demonstrated that Israelis held captive can be easily freed without firing a shot. This could help sway Israeli public opinion – which so far has been overwhelmingly in favour of the war – towards a ceasefire.

Some Israeli analysts are already noting a shift favouring a truce extension. Indeed, continuing on the path of negotiations would limit the country’s mounting economic losses and safeguard the lives of both its captives and soldiers. The Israeli military has admitted to the deaths of 70 soldiers since the start of the ground invasion.

The path to a ceasefire

Another problem with the Israeli government’s insistence on continuing the war is that it has not actually laid out an endgame that is acceptable to its allies, including the US.

Apart from the declared goal of “eradicating” Hamas from Gaza, Israeli officials have also indicated that they wish to expel the Palestinian population into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

 

Pressure from Arab allies quickly quashed US support for this idea as well as for Israeli plans to claim indefinite “security responsibility” in Gaza. The Biden administration’s alternative – for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to assume control of the enclave – has been roundly rejected by both Israel and Hamas, which, in the absence of Israeli reoccupation, would remain the only power broker in Gaza.

Instead of recognising this, the US has stubbornly refused to float any policy proposals that factor in Hamas’s survival. In that wilful blindness, Washington is joined by a chorus of pundits who continue to put forth “solutions” that presuppose Hamas’s destruction. But given the still-fresh memory of Afghanistan, US policymakers should know all too well that eradicating a homegrown resistance movement is, ultimately, impossible.

More possible would be to build on the example of the current hostage deal, which showed that both Israel and Hamas have the political will to negotiate. By working with mediators Qatar and Egypt, the US can help move the conversation around Gaza beyond the disastrous “with us or against us” rhetoric that characterised America’s war on terror and into discussions about a long-term ceasefire, one that would need to be brokered through Hamas’s political leadership-in-exile.

There is precedent for this. Recall that, in December 2012, Israel allowed Hamas’s then-leader Khaled Meshaal to return to Gaza as part of a negotiated truce after that year’s eight-day war. Whether current exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh can moderate the position of his Gaza counterpart, Yahya Sinwar, who is widely believed to have masterminded the October 7 attacks, will depend on Haniyeh’s ability to secure international relief and reconstruction funds.

Just as important will be a US commitment to rein in Israel’s extremist policies, including its siege of Gaza and backing for settler violence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Once such a de-escalation happens, it will become critical for the international community to uphold its commitment to Gaza’s reconstruction and development, easing the desperate conditions that helped give rise to the October 7 attacks.

 

To be sure, no vision for a peaceful future can abide the murder of civilians. But finding a way out of the current crisis means reckoning with the reality laid bare by this war’s first seven weeks: There is no way to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth” that does not take untold numbers of Palestinian – and Israeli – lives with it.

If Hamas’s long-term survival strains the imagination, the risks of simply avoiding the thought are even more unimaginable. Although this is clearly not a widely held sentiment in Israel right now, some Israelis, like former government advisor and Bar-Ilan University professor Menachem Klein, are coming around to the idea. Speaking to Al Jazeera after the first Israeli hostages were released, Klein conceded that it is “impossible to totally destroy Hamas by force”. The path forward, he argued, should include the group in renewed negotiations around a Palestinian state.

Given the horrific suffering endured by the people of Gaza, growing international and domestic pressure to end it, and the still-looming prospect of a broader regional conflict, the US can no longer insist that eliminating Hamas is the only path to ending this war.

 

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