We are nearing the end of the sixth day (in West Asia) of the daily ‘humanitarian pauses’ that have been painstakingly negotiated between the Hamas military/political leadership and their Israeli counterparts, via a trail that goes through Qatar and Egypt, with the Biden administration also eager to take a lot of credit. The first of those pauses was agreed to be four days long, then there was a two-day extension. Right now there are reports that Hamas is offering a further extension of two or even more days, on basically similar terms.
These arrangements have four well-known components: a strong bilateral restriction on conducting hostilities; Hamas’s release of an agreed daily number woman, children, and non-Israeli captives; Israel’s release of an agreed daily number of Palestinians women and children captives, on a basis of 3-to-1; and Israel’s “permission” to aid organizations to send an agreed number of aid trucks into Gaza, in a greed manner, each day.
The fact that these terms have been largely met by both sides for six days is very significant. Primarily, it shows that Hamas’s command-and-control apparatus in Gaza remained fundamentally intact even after the extreme pounding (bombing from land, sea, and air, use of large tank and other ground-force formations, etc) that Israel inflicted on Gaza for seven weeks prior to the start of the ‘pauses’. Hamas showed it was able to abide by the ceasefire provisions and impose discipline on other Gaza groups that might have sought not to. Hamas showed it was able to organize at least one release of hostages from within the (northern) environs of Gaza City, which the IDF had previously encircled and on which it had inflicted a terrible, Dresden/Stalingrad degree of damage.
I also want to give a strong and awed shoutout to the resilience, dignity, and commitment of the people of Gaza. They have suffered almost unimaginable harm over the past 54 days. The Government Media Office there reports that “more than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including about 6,150 children and 4,000 women.” Untold thousands have been injured. 1.7 million Gaza Palestinians have been displaced. Most of the Strip’s hospitals and many other public-use buildings have been destroyed. Schools have been turned into refugee camps (and several of them also destroyed.) The ‘pauses’ allowed many Gazans to go out and about and to see the extent and degree of the physical damage, and also to see the remains of unburied corpses on the streets and in pancaked buildings. Despite all this, there have been very few mass melees around arriving aid trucks. On the day that cooking gas was delivered to a station in central Gaza, Gazans arranged their families’ gas canisters in an orderly line that reportedly stretched for two kilometres.
It is of course impossible to gauge how all those Gaza Palestinians feel about Hamas. Most likely each of them is experiencing a complex swirl of feelings. But if the Israeli militarists hoped that by pounding the civilians of Gaza they could turn them against Hamas, that most certainly has not happened. (And as someone whose family lived in London during the Blitz, I would not expect have expected it to do so…)
Throughout these days of pauses, a large portion of Jewish-Israeli society (along with their cheering sections in the Western corporate media) have been transfixed by the details of each release of Israeli hostages. That focus, and the now well-established existence of broad pro-hostage-release lobbying networks within Israel, have placed on PM Netanyahu and his war cabinet some real pressure that has run counter to the urgings of his bombastic military leaders that they be allowed to resume full-scale operations in Gaza—and preferably, on a scale and intensity that far exceeds what they inflicted on Gaza’s people during the first seven weeks of the assault.
Netanyahu finds himself in a bind.
(An additional factor is the great remaining movement in Israel of people who still blame him and most of the existing military leadership for the big failure of October 7. He knows that as soon as this war “ends” in any significant way, the moment of domestic political judgment will come for him. Many of the military leaders fear this, too.)
… So here is Pres. Joe Biden, desperately eager to claim a lot more “credit” for the recent pauses than he probably deserves—and also, still totally committed to not calling on Israel to cease its assault altogether. As he has made clear a number of times during the days of pause, he still strongly thinks that Israel has the “right” to resume this war (which bizarrely he describes as an act of self-defense) and beyond that, that Israel should continue the war until it achieves the elimination of Hamas or at least the dismantling of its entire command-and-control structure in Gaza. (The same command-and-control structure, that is, that has ensured the safe delivery of scores of Israeli and non-Israeli hostages up to this point. Go figure…)
But here is dear old soft-hearted Joe, eager to “urge” the IDF to find ways to achieve that dismantle-Hamas goal while minimizing the additional damage that it inflicts on Gaza’s civilians. By trying to operationalize those “humanitarian” concerns, Biden is actually ending up trying to micromanage the whole Israeli war campaign; and he must thereby bear even more responsibility for the suffering of Gazans than he would otherwise.
How closely and in what ways is the Biden administration entangled in Israel’s war-making? The veteran Haaretz journo Aluf Benn has an informative piece up today (paywalled), in which he spells it out. “Israel cannot determine its course [in the war] alone,” he writes. “It depends upon multi-layered American support, as the IDF idiom has it.”
He then spells out the five different layers of this support:
First, in renewal of the munition stores to replace the many bombs, missiles, and artillery shells fired at and dropped on the Strip. Second, in warning of distant launches, through the radar and warning network shared by Israel and the U.S. military’s Central Command. Third, in securing Israeli freedom of shipping to and from Eilat port, in the face of the naval blockade imposed by the Houthis who control the Bab al-Mandab straits in the Red Sea. Fourth, in deterring Iran and Hezbollah from opening further fronts in Lebanon, and perhaps Syria and Iraq as well, through American aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles stationed in the region. And fifth, the U.S. holds veto power at the UN Security Council, and may thwart – or allow – a resolution calling for a cease-fire.
I was interested to learn from Benn about “the radar and warning network shared by Israel and the U.S. military’s Central Command,” and would love to know more about that integration. I also wish he had added to his list the presence of U.S. (and perhaps also British) Special Ops “advisors” providing advice to Israeli troops on the ground in Gaza. But the fifth of the layers he specifies is crucial: the United States possession, and demonstrated readiness to use, its U.N. Security Council veto.
The Americans, Benn concludes, “are closely involved in all levels of managing the war… In this situation, an Israeli decision on renewing the fighting in the south, and certainly expanding it against Hezbollah in the north, would be subject to American concurrence, or understanding at least.” (My emphasis.)
In Benn’s telling, one of the key U.S. priorities in the war, along with Israel trying to minimize civilian damage, is that the Israeli side should, “produce an outline for the day after ‘toppling Hamas,’ with the preferred scenario in Washington being the Palestinian Authority’s return to the Strip and the opening of negotiations for the two-state solution.”
Just a couple of quick notes here. Washington’s own extensive planning for the ‘day after’ the toppling of Saddam Hussein didn’t go particularly well, did it? So why would anyone in Washington think that an Israeli plan for the ‘day after’ the toppling of Hamas in Gaza would go any better?
Also, why should Washington be calling on Israel to have its own plan for the ‘day after’? Why not just tell Israel that Washington expects the political endpoint in Gaza (and the West Bank) to be one that’s in line with international law, U.N. resolutions, and Washington’s long-stated goal of a two-state solution… and specify clearly that this is the endpoint to which United States itself is meanwhile working? (Not that it currently is working in any perceptible way for this endpoint. But still, wouldn’t you think that given the truly massive amounts of “many-layered” aid the United States has been giving Israel during this war, the U.S. government could right now be clearly spelling out and working to achieve its own long-stated endpoint?)
Benn is a thoughtful and generally well-informed analyst. But he writes, “Should Israel continue to duck the ‘day after’ question, the U.S. will succumb to internal and international pressures to stop the war and impose a permanent cease-fire.” Personally, I’m not so sure. Biden was quite happy to give massive support to the Israeli war effort continuously for seven weeks after October 7, even though Netanyahu never spelled out clear “day after” goals throughout all that time. (And probably for good domestic-political reasons. There is, after all, a very significant bloc of people in his own government that wants Israel to stay permanently in part or all of Gaza after the war, and even to build there a new and larger version of the coastal settlements that PM Sharon emptied out back in 2005.) Why should Biden suddenly decide now that the “day after” question is so important for him?
… Meantime, at the global level and even here within U.S. domestic politics, the pressures for a real, enduring, wall-to-wall ceasefire have been continuing to grow. Whether a massive new IDF assault on Gaza is on the cards (as I think likely), or not (also a possibility), the 2.3 million people of Gaza are already in a living hell of displacement, destruction, and growing incidence of hunger and disease.
These days of ‘pause’ have allowed 200 trucks per day of humanitarian aid to go into the Strip—that, compared with over 500 trucks of goods entering the Strip each day prior to October 7, in a situation in which there no such starkly pressing humanitarian needs as there are today.
Yes of course, what the people of Gaza are living (and dying) through is a massive humanitarian crisis. But beyond that, and more importantly, the crisis that they and their compatriots in West Bank are facing is an intense political crisis of the first order.
What the Palestinians deserve are the political rights that successive U.N. resolutions since 1947 have explicitly promised them: the right to create their own independent state on a part of historic (Mandate) Palestine; one in which they can enjoy sovereignty, safety and security; in which their economic and land rights are secure and they can pursue their own economic goals; and a state that can freely choose how to build economic and political ties with all other countries as it chooses.
Is that so hard to understand? No. And this is a future for Palestine to which just about all the U.N. member states have long been committed—even if, in the case of the U.S. government, that ‘commitment’ has in recent years had only the quality of necessary lip-service.
But this is a future for Palestine to which Netanyahu and nearly the whole of the Israeli political class are viscerally opposed. It is my hope, on today’s International Day of Solidarity with the People of Palestine, that the intense harms that Gaza Palestinians are continuing to suffer can at last bring about, within the next 18-24 months, the establishment of a robust, fully independent Palestinian state. But to get to that point requires a lot more, and more effective, political work on behalf of Palestine’s supporters both within and far outside the United States.