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After a dramatic week in Gaza, where does the war stand? - The Economist - 09.05.24

The Rafah offensive has not really begun, and a ceasefire is probably still weeks away at best.


FOR MONTHS diplomats in the Middle East have obsessed over two issues. One is the stop-start effort to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which would see the group release some of its hostages. The other is the long-threatened Israeli offensive in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, now home to 1.5m people displaced from elsewhere in the enclave. It was a stark choice: either a deal to pause the war or an offensive to widen it.


Then both seemed to happen at once. On May 6th the Israeli army dropped leaflets on Rafah urging about 100,000 civilians to evacuate the city’s south-east. Panicked residents gathered belongings and fled. Later that evening, though, Hamas unexpectedly announced that it had agreed to a proposed ceasefire. Gazans thought their seven-month ordeal was at an end, but that hope was premature. Hours later, amid heavy air strikes, Israeli tanks rumbled into Rafah’s periphery.


It was a dramatic day—yet less dramatic than it seemed. Both Israel and Hamas have now agreed to a ceasefire plan, but not to the same one. It will probably take at least a week or two to reach a compromise—and that may not happen at all. If the war has not stopped, however, neither has the Rafah offensive truly begun. In a week where everything seemed to change, perhaps nothing has, at least not yet.

The Israeli tanks that crossed into southern Gaza did not enter Rafah proper. Instead they seized part of the Philadelphi corridor, a strip of land next to Egypt, and the border crossing (also called Rafah) between the two territories (see map). Army officials say they have not yet been ordered to enter the city itself, nor to advance farther north along the corridor.


Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the border with Egypt and the smuggling tunnels beneath it have been a lifeline. Weapons would enter, and militants would exit to seek medical treatment or safety. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, has periodically made a show of destroying the tunnels. But smuggling is lucrative: soldiers on the Egyptian side are happy to take a cut. Israel has a strategic rationale to seize the border. Indeed, some army officers believe they should have done so during the early weeks of the war.


But the border is not only vital for Hamas. The Rafah crossing is the only way ordinary Gazans can escape the strip. It was the only conduit for humanitarian aid in the first two months of the war. Though it has been eclipsed in recent months by Kerem Shalom, a commercial crossing between Israel and Gaza, it remains important: 23% of the 5,671 lorries that entered southern Gaza last month came via Rafah.


When the order to seize the corridor came down, late on May 6th, Israeli generals were surprised. They had not expected to enter southern Gaza for at least another week. The hasty incursion meant they had no plans for how to keep the Rafah crossing operational.


The army considered bringing a unit now stationed at crossings in the Israeli-occupied West Bank or an American private-security firm to oversee the border post. This is an urgent matter: the Kerem Shalom crossing was temporarily closed earlier this month after Hamas twice fired rockets at it, although the Israeli army said it had reopened on May 8th.


The rushed military manoeuvre was a political choice. When the war cabinet convened on May 6th, it made two decisions: to go ahead with the incursion into southern Gaza, and to send a low-level team of negotiators to Cairo for talks about Hamas’s ceasefire proposal. For Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, the first order was meant to balance the second. His far-right allies have threatened to leave the coalition if he makes a deal with Hamas. Fear of that drives his decisions.


Closer than you’d think


Negotiators have not released the exact ceasefire proposal that Israel agreed to last month. But they have briefed journalists on its main points, and Arab media outlets sympathetic to Hamas have published what they say is the full text of the group’s counter-proposal. The two are broadly similar. Both envisage a three-stage ceasefire, starting with a six-week period in which Hamas would release 33 Israeli hostages—women, children, the old and the sick—in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.


In the second stage, also six weeks long, the two sides would work towards a “sustainable calm” in Gaza. That term of art is meant to gloss over a major sticking-point: Hamas wants the deal to lead to a permanent ceasefire; Israel will accept only a temporary one. The vague phrasing was chosen to satisfy both sides. If they do manage to reach that elusive calm, Hamas would release all of its remaining captives. The third phase would see an exchange of bodies and an end to the war.


But there are a few notable differences between the texts. The most significant are related to the hostage release in the agreement’s first stage. The earlier proposal required Hamas to free three living hostages every three days, up to a total of 33. Hamas countered with a more drawn-out schedule: just three per week until the sixth and final week, when the group would free the rest of the agreed-upon 33 captives.


Hamas also dropped the commitment to free living hostages. Instead, it might hand over an unspecified number of bodies. Israeli officials believe that over one-quarter of the 132 hostages still in Gaza are already dead. This is only an estimate. For months, Hamas has refused to provide details on their well-being. These are not trivial differences—but they could probably be resolved through further talks.


The question is whether Mr Netanyahu wants to resolve them. Most Israelis support an agreement. A survey conducted earlier this month by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think-tank, found that 62% of them (and 56% of Jewish Israelis) think a hostage deal should take priority over a Rafah offensive. Among right-wing Jews, however, the numbers are flipped: 55% think Rafah is more important. And they are Mr Netanyahu’s core constituency.

 

The prime minister cannot take the deal and keep his coalition. He is not only under pressure from small far-right parties. Senior members of his own Likud party are also pushing him to reject a truce and go into Rafah. If he refuses, he could lose their support. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, has said he would back Mr Netanyahu if the prime minister needs help with a hostage deal—but his backing would be short-lived. Early elections would follow.


If Hamas refuses to budge on its ceasefire proposal, Mr Netanyahu could claim he negotiated in good faith but had to reject a flawed deal. Should that happen, though, he would face another dilemma: whether to order the Rafah offensive.


If he did, Joe Biden would be furious. Until now, the American president’s mounting anger with Mr Netanyahu has not gone much beyond strong words. But on May 8th he said he would not supply Israel with the weapons that would be used in an attack on Rafah. It was Mr Biden’s strongest action to date against Israel. If it becomes broader policy, it would hobble the Israeli army, which cannot sustain a war without American resupply.


Over his long career, Mr Netanyahu has honed indecision into an art form. He has spent the past few months half-heartedly agreeing to ceasefire talks and making empty promises about a Rafah offensive—pursuing both, but ensuring he achieved neither. Now, though, both America and his right-wing allies are losing patience. He may not be able to dither much longer. ■



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After a dramatic week in Gaza, where does the war stand - The Economist - 09.05.24
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This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline "Running in place"






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