A truce in the Israel–Hamas war will allow a pause in fighting and the release of hostages, although if fighting recommences the ground offensive may spread to southern Gaza. By Gregg Carlstrom.

Four-day ceasefire agreed in Israel–Hamas war

A group of men search through the debris of a fallen building.
Palestinians search buildings hit by Israeli air strikes in Khan Younis, Gaza.
Credit: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Seven weeks after it started, Israel’s war in Gaza has reached a four-day ceasefire. The truce was part of a deal in which Hamas agreed to release 50 hostages, mostly women and children, out of the roughly 240 it is holding in Gaza. Israel, in return, would free 150 Palestinian prisoners and allow more humanitarian aid into the territory via Egypt.

This is a temporary truce, not a durable ceasefire. The deal allows for the truce to be extended by 24 hours for each 10 additional hostages Hamas frees. That could give its fighters more time to regroup but also put pressure on Israel not to resume fighting. Israeli officials are clear, however: when the truce ends, the next phase of their war will begin.

The fighting so far has left northern Gaza uninhabitable. There are a few pockets of life around hospitals, churches and other places, where desperate Palestinians have taken shelter. Most of the population has fled, nearly half the buildings have been destroyed or damaged and the infrastructure has been wrecked.

This is already by far the bloodiest conflict between Israel and Hamas and could become the longest one as well. One pressing question is how Gaza will look following the war: who will govern and rebuild?

The Israeli army has effectively dislodged Hamas from control in the northern half of Gaza, a process that was quicker than many would have anticipated. Before the truce, Israeli troops were looking for arms caches and tunnel entrances, a laborious process that involved house-by-house searches. In the past week they pushed into areas in north-eastern Gaza they had yet to probe. But the first phase of the war, with its ferocious bombardment and large ground offensive, is drawing to a close.

That means Israel will increasingly turn its attention south if fighting continues after the truce. Officials believe the leaders of Hamas, and many of its militants, fled to southern Gaza early in the war. Many of them are probably hidden in tunnels. Before the truce, Israeli officials said they would need to expand the boundaries of their ground offensive – but doing so raises two difficult questions.

First is how to fight amid such a dense civilian population. Before the war, southern Gaza was home to about half of the enclave’s 2.2 million people. Now almost the entire population is there and they have nowhere else to flee. Egypt refuses to open its border with Gaza, both because it does not want to be complicit in displacing Palestinians and because it worries militants will cross over along with civilians. Israel, too, has no interest in hosting displaced Gazans.

The Israeli army hopes to set up a “humanitarian zone” in Al-Mawasi, a sliver of farmland on the Mediterranean coast in southern Gaza. Yet officials acknowledge they cannot relocate millions of people into an area two-thirds the size of Nauru. The presence of so many civilians may limit what Israeli troops can do on the ground: limited raids by mobile units, rather than the clear-and-hold tactics used by lumbering armoured columns in the north.

Second is how to alleviate a dire humanitarian crisis. In the month since October 21, when Israel began allowing aid into Gaza, about 1300 trucks carrying food, water and medicine have crossed into Gaza via Egypt. That is a tiny fraction of what is needed: compare it with the roughly 500 trucks a day that entered before the war. Families are skipping meals and using dirty water from agricultural wells to mix baby formula. Hospitals are short of supplies, forcing doctors to operate without anaesthetic. “Death would be more of a mercy than living like this,” said Ahmed Abu Silmiyah, a Gaza City resident displaced to Khan Younis in the central part of the strip.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is not set up to handle large volumes of aid: before the war, only a third of shipments to Gaza entered that way. Some Israeli officers acknowledge they will have to reopen their own border to allow for a more significant flow of goods, but the government refuses to consider that until Hamas releases all of the hostages it and other groups seized during the October 7 massacre that killed more than 1200 Israelis and sparked the conflict.

How long Israel can continue to fight in Gaza will depend in part on outside pressure, both military and diplomatic. Iranian-backed militias on Israel’s borders have tried to raise the cost of the Gaza war. Hezbollah, the Shia militant group and political party in neighbouring Lebanon, has kept up near-daily attacks on Israel, which has hit back with shelling and air strikes. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, has signalled in multiple speeches that he does not want a fully-fledged war with Israel – but he has also refused to rule it out.

The same goes for the Houthis, the rebels who control much of Yemen. They have launched missiles and drones at southern Israel, to little effect. On November 19 they seized a cargo ship in the Red Sea that is part-owned by an Israeli businessman.

For now, all of this is meant to show the reach of Iran’s proxies and exact a price on Israel – not plunge the region into a wider war. It is risky, however. Even if no one wants a major escalation, a cross-border strike that kills lots of Israelis or Lebanese could force one.

Diplomatic pressure has not yet forced a significant change, either. Last month the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution that called for an “immediate, durable and sustained” humanitarian truce. Almost two-thirds of the UN’s full members – 120 countries – voted in favour. The Arab world is united in demanding a permanent ceasefire. A delegation of foreign ministers from Arab and Muslim-majority states is touring world capitals, starting with Beijing on November 20, to push for one. Some Western leaders, such as Emmanuel Macron of France, have also called for an end to the fighting.

Their voices are not irrelevant, but ultimately it is just one voice that matters: Joe Biden’s. The American president, so far, rejects talk of a sustained ceasefire, arguing it would leave Hamas intact to menace Israel again. He is paying a price for that position. American diplomats warn it has already done lasting harm to their standing in the Arab world. Polls have found a significant share of Democrats and most young Americans disapprove of Biden’s support for the war.

In private – and increasingly in public – American officials are raising concerns about Israel’s tactics and strategy. The former, they argue, have not done enough to protect civilians in Gaza. After rocketing ever higher during the first weeks of the war, the Palestinian death toll has slowed – but only because most of the fighting is in northern Gaza, and almost no one is left there. The government’s media office put the death toll above 14,500. A bloody offensive in southern Gaza would bring a new wave of diplomatic pressure. As for strategy, the US has begun to doubt that Israel has a viable post-war plan.

Whenever the fighting ends, Israel and the Palestinians will be in uncharted territory. Despite occasional rounds of fighting in Gaza, the conflict had been relatively stagnant for almost two decades. Violence was at historic lows. Benjamin Netanyahu’s theory of the conflict, that it could be managed indefinitely, was ascendant. That status quo is no more – and what comes next is hard to predict.

Perhaps the safest bet is the end of the war will mean the end of Netanyahu’s political career. Many Israelis already wanted him gone after a year of political chaos triggered by his efforts to hobble the country’s high court. That anger has turned to fury since October 7. The heads of Israel’s army and security services have accepted responsibility for failing to prevent the Hamas massacre; after the war, their resignations seem all but certain. Netanyahu has not.

His poll numbers are bleak. A survey published by Israel’s Channel 12 on November 16 found the prime minister’s Likud party would collapse to 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from 32 in last year’s election. A bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties would win a 70-seat majority, led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief whose centre-right National Unity party would take 36 seats.

One should always be cautious of polls in Israel, however – especially before there is an election date or a final list of candidates. Some of the Israelis now pushing for Gantz may end up voting for other candidates, such as Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former prime minister eyeing a return to politics. Still, in survey after survey, the trend is clear: Israel’s longest-serving leader is unlikely to win another term.

Less clear is who will run Gaza. America would like to see the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the occupied West Bank, take up the task. So would many Israeli army officers. But Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says he will not do so unless Israel commits to a serious effort to reach a two-state solution.

That would require a profound shift in Israeli politics: Netanyahu and his right-wing allies have spent many years trying to foreclose the possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians. A recent poll by Mitvim, an Israeli think tank, found just 27 per cent of Israelis believed the long-term goal of the Gaza war was a two-state solution. A slightly larger share, 28 per cent, thought it was annexation of both Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Just as unlikely is the prospect, mooted by various Western diplomats, of an Arab peacekeeping force that could be deployed to police post-war Gaza. “There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza. None,” said Ayman al-Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister. The PA is too weak to secure the enclave by itself, however, which could leave the Israeli army to enforce a prolonged occupation.

Hamas merely hopes to survive the war. Its leaders hope international pressure will eventually force an ongoing ceasefire that leaves the group intact. “They want that victory image,” said an Israeli security official, “where they emerge from the tunnels after the war.” Even if the group is vanquished in Gaza, it retains some support in the West Bank – and it could be reconstituted, or something else could rise to take its place.

At the other end of the spectrum is Abbas, whose nationalist Fatah party runs the PA. He turned 88 this month. He also lacks a clear successor. His death could set off a power struggle within the PA, which has already lost control of parts of the West Bank. Optimistic foreign diplomats hope the war, awful as it is, could spur a serious peace process. A more likely outcome is that political turmoil on both sides renders one impossible.

For now, much of this seems hypothetical: it is hard to talk about what will happen after the war when that war seems poised to drag on possibly for months. Indeed, murky plans for the day after suggest Israel will be unable to make a quick exit from Gaza. Even if it succeeds in defeating Hamas, it may find itself stuck with the responsibility for a ruined, desperate enclave. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Four-day ceasefire agreed in Israel–Hamas war".

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