Even a vague ‘sustainable calm’ would be better for Gaza than this unsustainable war

Negotiators have a deal on the table, even as Rafah suffers, but now they must push it to the finish line

Israel has seized control of Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt. AFP
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“With or without a deal” is how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his intentions to invade the Gaza city of Rafah and seize control of its border crossing with Egypt. A deal was put on the table late Monday night, brokered by Egypt and Qatar and accepted by the Hamas militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, and, sure enough, Israeli tanks pressed on. Israeli air strikes have continued to hit Rafah, and the border crossing is now in Israeli hands. Gaza now has no land border that isn’t under Israeli control – and there is a blockade on its maritime borders. Rafah’s residents, meanwhile, are uncertain what lies ahead.

Mr Netanyahu’s government rejected the first iteration of the deal out of hand, saying its terms were “not strong enough”, though it has dispatched negotiators to Cairo to discuss further. The deal’s terms, outlined in a draft seen by The National, present a three-phase plan to end the war.

The first is a 42-day ceasefire involving the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza’s most populated areas, a curb in Israeli air force activity (including reconnaissance) over the Strip, a phased release of some of the Israeli hostages Hamas holds and the return of displaced Gazans to their homes. The second includes the release of remaining hostages (as well as an unspecified number of Palestinians detained by Israel), the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and a move towards a rather-ambiguously worded “sustainable calm”. The final phase would see a complete end to Israel’s blockade on the Strip and the introduction of a three-to-five-year Gaza reconstruction plan.

Gaza now has no land border that isn’t under Israeli control

Israel has not elaborated on its rejection of the deal, but based on Mr Netanyahu’s previous statements the sticking point was presumably the mere fact that Hamas will be allowed to continue existing. Hamas, for its part, has remained vague on how it sees its own future in the context of the deal. Early drafts of the agreement mentioned a “permanent” cessation of hostilities, which might have implied a shift in Hamas’s post-war posture from an armed resistance movement to a non-violent one. But that language was absent in the updated draft presented to Israel. Instead, Hamas has agreed only to the “sustainable calm”.

It is unlikely that a permanent cessation of hostilities would have appealed to the Israelis either, given Mr Netanyahu’s bellicosity towards Hamas and most Palestinians. Israeli hawks have argued that Israel withdrew its military from Gaza in 2005, and what followed in the form of Hamas militancy taking over the Strip was hardly an argument for pacifism. But a sustainable calm, even if it is a vague concept, is better than this unsustainable war.

Negotiators in Cairo this week, then, have handled the hard task of hammering down what the minutiae of a deal could look like, but they are left with more profound questions that need to be answered quickly. Can Israel be pushed to accept any future with Hamas and, conversely, can Hamas itself become something with which Israel could learn to live? The answers may seem more appropriate for a grand vision for long-term peace than an incremental step towards a ceasefire. But in a sense, they are both.

As the talks continue and the state of play in Rafah evolves, Gaza’s fate is being determined hour by hour, with potentially years-long ramifications.

Published: May 07, 2024, 2:11 PM