It is a worrying reflection of how brutal the Middle East’s latest war has been that a relatively limited cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas – which is due to begin today – has been so contested and so long in coming.
Nevertheless, should the proposed four-day halt in the Israeli bombing campaign and exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian detainees – many of them civilians – take place, aid and some limited freedom of movement may become available to millions of beleaguered Gazan civilians.
For a Palestinian civilian population that has been corralled into a killing zone for a war it didn’t start, a respite is the very least that can be secured by world powers. The human cost of the failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue, leading to the Hamas attacks of October 7 and the Israeli strikes, has been devastating; more than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed so far and about 1,200 Israelis have lost their lives. About 240 Israelis, many of them civilians, were abducted by Hamas fighters and, according to the government media office in Gaza, 6,800 Palestinians have gone missing since October 7. This is not to mention the thousands of people who have been injured, traumatised or displaced.
Sadly, the four-day halt – secured with mediation from the US, Qatar and Egypt – is far from a guarantee that fighting will not resume with the same intensity – or worse – later. Comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about continuing the war to achieve the “complete elimination of Hamas and ensure that Gaza does not renew any threat to the state of Israel” do not inspire much optimism.
It is important to note, however, that many voices in Israeli civil society are opposed to further conflict and want to see the hostages return home safely. Many also call for a long-term peaceful solution. These voices are often in stark contrast to Israel’s political right who have argued against a truce, claiming it would allow Hamas to regroup or even viewing it as an obstacle to the complete destruction of Gaza ahead of longed-for resettlement.
In terms of hostages, although 50 is a limited number of people to release, this is not to downplay the relief their families will feel. They and their loved ones are no more responsible for the policies of the Israeli state than Palestinians are collectively responsible for the brutal and indiscriminate tactics of Hamas. However, even if the truce goes ahead, many, many more civilians remain in harm’s way – and these are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side.
What the cessation represents is a small opportunity – a limited window in which to find a way out of this crisis that has cost so many lives. Sadly, such agreements are inherently prone to collapse. Therefore, it is incumbent on all those with real influence over Israel and Hamas – who also bear significant responsibility for the latest round of violence – to use this moment to turn a cessation into something more akin to a ceasefire. This could provide a breathing space for further humanitarian aid to reach Gaza and for more Israeli hostages to return home. Without a halt to the fighting, no political or humanitarian progress can be made.