Netanyahu borrows time by rejecting Gaza ceasefire.


By James M. Dorsey

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This week’s Gazan short-lived celebration of a ceasefire that was not to be, highlights what is at stake in the seven-month-old war and Israel’s refusal to end the carnage.

Thousands poured into Gazan streets within minutes of Hamas advising it had accepted a Qatar and Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

Gaza celebrates Hamas’ ceasefire acceptance. Source: Global News

“We have shown the world that we survived this war as Palestinians. We stood our ground on our land. We survived 212 days of attacks and devastation by the world’s most advanced weapons. We did not leave. We survived on our own with no help from outside,” said Ahmad, a young Gazan, one of the thousands celebrating in the streets of Rafah Hamas’ acceptance of a ceasefire with Israel.

The celebrations were short-lived. They dissipated 90 minutes later as Israel made clear its rejection of the proposal.

“The Hamas proposal is far from meeting Israel's core demands,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

Not to be painted as the party pooper, the statement added that Israel would “dispatch a ranking delegation to Egypt in an effort to maximize the possibility of reaching an agreement on terms acceptable to Israel.”

Mr. Netanyahu is going through the motions as he lays the groundwork for what could be a final major offensive in the southern Gazan enclave of Rafah against Hamas that could determine his chances of political survival.

Rafah is Mr. Netanyahu’s desperate attempt at achieving war goals he has failed to realise in seven months of unrelenting military operations at an unspeakable cost to innocent Palestinians.

These goals include the destruction of Hamas, symbolised by the elimination of its military force; the killing or capture of its top leadership; the release of the remaining Hamas-held hostages kidnapped by the group during its October 7 attack on Israel; and ensuring that Gaza will be longer serve as a launching pad for Palestinian resistance.

Hamas continues to play whack-a-mole with Israel despite having suffered severe losses. The group’s Gaza-based leadership remains intact and in control, and roughly half of the 250 people initially kidnapped by Hamas were freed as a result of a one-week ceasefire in November, not because of Israeli military action.

Moreover, Israel believes that Hamas’ leadership, including Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s most wanted man, is hiding in tunnels under Rafah shielded by the remaining hostages.

Even so, Mr. Netanyahu is living politically on borrowed time, irrespective of whether he succeeds in Gaza or not. Israeli opinion polls suggest that Mr. Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative coalition partners would lose the next election.

Israelis demand acceptance of ceasefire deal. Source: The Times

Hundreds of angry protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem denounced the government’s rejection of the ceasefire proposal. They called on Mr. Netanyahu to prioritise the release of Hamas-held hostages by accepting the deal.

Instead, Israeli forces on Tuesday took control of the Rafah side of the Gaza-Egyptian border and closed the border crossing crucial to the flow of desperately needed humanitarian supplies in the Strip as Israeli tanks pushed into the city of Rafah itself.

Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection of the deal while going through the motions of negotiations and his impending Rafah offensive, at best, buys him time.

Even so, by accepting a ceasefire, Hamas threw a curveball at Mr. Netanyahu as well as the Biden administration.

The acceptance put the shoe on Mr. Netanyahu’s foot and the administration on the spot. The Biden administration has repeatedly publicly opposed a massive military operation in Rafah, home to more than a million Palestinians displaced by the war. 

Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Hayya. Credit: AP

The irony is that Hamas offered Mr. Netanyahu and the administration a way out by leaking details of the ceasefire and prisoner exchange proposal it had accepted that made clear that it was not a deal Israel would accept.

At the same time, it allowed Hamas to project itself as engaging constructively in negotiations.

The leaks suggested, against all evidence from Jerusalem, that Israel would agree to a permanent rather than a temporary ceasefire, an end to the war, and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

They also inferred that US President Joe Biden had accepted Hamas’ demand that the United States would guarantee implementation of the deal.

“The essential aim of the deal is a permanent ceasefire and full withdrawal” of Israeli forces from Gaza, senior Hamas negotiator Khali al Hayaa told Al Jazeera. “We did what we are supposed to do. The onus is on the mediators and the international community,” Mr. Al-Hayya added.

Hamas’ acceptance of a ceasefire proposal it knew Israel would reject raises the tantalising question of whether Mr. Netanyahu may not be the only one allegedly wanting to prolong the war for personal political gain.

The same could be true for his nemesis, Mr. Sinwar, even if one can also wonder why he would agree to a deal that gives license to Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas by agreeing to a post-ceasefire continuation of the war.

Nevertheless, the short-lived Gazan celebrations and the fact that a ceasefire means to Gazans more than just an end to the death, destitution, and destruction in the Strip suggests that it could create a reckoning not only for Mr. Netanyahu but also for Mr. Sinwar.

Gazans want to extract a price for the suffering inflicted upon them. The devastation of their lives has not dampened Palestinian national aspirations, even if they are desperate for immediate relief.

Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar feels the heat. Credit: AP

Even so, Mr. Sinwar and Hamas are feeling the heat of growing criticism of the group for provoking the Israeli assault that has devastated Gaza and reduced its 2.3 million inhabitants to destitution.

In late March, Hamas felt compelled to issue a lengthy statement apologising to Gazans for their suffering, despite 52 per cent of Gazans favouring a return to post-war Hamas rule as opposed to the West Bank-based, internationally recognised Palestine Authority, an Arab peacekeeping force, the United Nations, or Israel.

It’s a choice between what Palestinians perceive as bad alternatives. It also opts, against all odds, for the party most vigorous in defending Palestinian rights and aspirations.

Prominent Israeli columnist Anschel Pfeffer argued that “it is looking increasingly unlikely that Hamas' chief in Gaza and the man who calls the shots on any deal, Yahya Sinwar, is prepared to agree to any compromise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can accept. Both men are determined to emerge with a perception of victory in their grasp – but there doesn't appear to be any framework in which the two can have that.”

Even so, Mr. Pfeffer noted, “Israelis and Gazans aren't stupid. Most of them have conceded that they have lost too much for there to be any notion of ‘victory’ in this war. But as long as their fates are controlled by two men who insist on being the victor at any cost, this war is going to continue.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.



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