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After nearly two weeks of intense fighting, the two parties have agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. By Gregg Carlstrom.

US sidelined in Israel–Hamas ceasefire negotiations

A Palestinian youth in the rubble of the Kuhail building in Gaza City this week.
Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

After 10 days of fighting that saw hundreds of people killed, neither Israel nor Hamas seemed to know what they were trying to achieve. The bombs and rockets kept falling. But by Thursday there were signs that a ceasefire might be imminent.

By then more than 220 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, including about 100 women and children. Twelve people had died in Israel from Hamas rockets and mortars.

The intensity of fire, both from the Israeli army and Palestinian militants, had lessened in recent days. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, said a truce could be “imminent”, perhaps within “one or two days”.

Nothing had been agreed. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said on Wednesday that he was “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met”.

In private conversations, though, Israeli officials said they too were looking to wind down their military campaign.

This is the worst fighting between Israel and Hamas since 2014, when they fought a war that lasted 51 days and killed thousands, overwhelmingly in Gaza.

The first shots were fired on May 10 after a month of unrest in Jerusalem, touched off by restrictions imposed on Palestinians during the Ramadan holiday and a lawsuit that threatened to evict Palestinian families from their long-time homes in East Jerusalem.

Hamas, always eager to portray itself as the leader of the Palestinian cause, fired a salvo of rockets at Jerusalem. Things escalated from there, faster and further than they have in the recent past. Witnesses in Gaza describe the Israeli bombardment this month as the heaviest they have ever experienced.

A single round of early-morning Israeli air strikes on May 16 killed more than 40 Palestinians living along al-Wahda street, a busy strip in central Gaza City. Israel said the bombs were aimed at a series of underground tunnels used by militants. But they brought down the houses above as well, trapping whole families beneath the rubble. One man lost four of his five children; 17 members of another family were killed.

Elsewhere in Gaza the fighting laid waste to infrastructure already crumbling after a 14-year blockade. The territory’s sole power plant was running short on fuel, and powerlines that link Gaza to Israel were damaged in explosions. Many residents were receiving just four or five hours of electricity a day.

The only clinic in Gaza equipped to perform Covid-19 tests was shut down due to damage. Ruptured pipes sent sewage flooding into the streets in eastern Gaza. More than 50,000 Palestinians have been displaced, according to the United Nations. The International Criminal Court, which in March opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants, has been urged to scrutinise recent events in Gaza.

Casualties have been far lower inside Israel. Hamas and other groups fired large barrages of rockets meant to overwhelm Iron Dome, an anti-missile system designed with American support. They launched almost as many projectiles in 10 days this month as they did during the entirety of the 2014 war. But the Iron Dome was largely successful at shooting down projectiles aimed at populated areas in Israel.

Negotiations for a ceasefire have been led by Egypt, which shares a border with both Israel and Gaza. The United States has been largely absent. It repeatedly vetoed attempts to pass a UN Security Council resolution on the violence, and it took a full week for US president Joe Biden to express his support for a truce.

Biden has looked increasingly out of step with his own party: even some pro-Israel Democrats have expressed unease with the level of devastation in Gaza. On Wednesday, he finally told Netanyahu that he expected a “significant de-escalation”.

On Friday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, in a deal brokered by Egypt.

Neither side will emerge from this latest fighting with any lasting accomplishments. Israel, as ever, will define its goal simply as “quiet”, to cause enough damage to Hamas and other militant groups so that they cease their rocket barrages for a few years.

Hamas will claim victory merely for having disrupted normal life in Israel. Some residents near the Gaza border left for safer areas; in Tel Aviv, they spent nights sleeping in bomb shelters. Many flights to Ben-Gurion airport, the country’s largest, were either cancelled or redirected to Eilat in the far south.

But this is small succour for the two million Palestinians trapped in Gaza. Past rounds of fighting produced no change in a miserable status quo.

The territory has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, when Hamas seized power after it won most of the seats in a parliamentary election a year earlier. The movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza is tightly restricted. Almost half of its residents are unemployed. Even in calmer times, electricity is available for perhaps eight hours a day. Water is undrinkable; untreated sewage pours into the Mediterranean.

The blockade was meant to dislodge Hamas. It has not done so; in fact, it has helped to secure the group’s control over Gaza. After the 2014 war, even hawkish Israeli politicians suggested it was time to rethink the policy. Yet it remains in place.

The conflict has also reinforced decrepit politics. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu seemed on his way out of office. Israel has held four elections in just over two years. They have become almost personal referendums on Netanyahu, who has held power since 2009 and is now on trial for bribery.

These repeated elections have failed to produce a stable government. The most recent, in March, gave a plurality to Netanyahu’s Likud party. But several right-wing parties ruled out joining a government with him, and his attempts to forge an awkward coalition that included both Islamists and far-right Jewish supremacists were unsuccessful.

On May 5 Netanyahu’s main rival, Yair Lapid, was given the mandate to try to form his own government. His efforts had seemed to be bearing fruit, until the Gaza campaign. They are now on hold. Naftali Bennett, a religious nationalist politician who had been open to joining Lapid, backed out of those negotiations. He is now in talks with Netanyahu. The fighting may have given Israel’s longest-serving prime minister a new lease on life.

Both Netanyahu and Lapid had tried to court Mansour Abbas, the leader of Ra’am, a party that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise a fifth of the population. For Ra’am to join a coalition would have been a watershed moment: no Arab party has done so in Israel’s 73-year history.

Some Palestinians in Israel feel they cannot participate in a government that continues to oppress their kin in the occupied territories. Others, though, had hoped that joining a coalition would help redress a long list of grievances. Palestinians in Israel have long complained of discrimination in government services, jobs and policing. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law in 2018 that downgraded Arabic from an official language and declared that only Jews hold the “right to exercise national self-determination”.

But Ra’am may find itself relegated to the sidelines. Fighting in Gaza and unrest in Jerusalem touched off several days of communal violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, the worst in a generation. Civilians were assaulted and stabbed in the streets; businesses were ransacked. Bennett has since ruled out joining a coalition that includes Ra’am.

As for the Palestinians, they were meant to hold their own legislative elections on May 22, their first since 2006. Last month, though, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, cancelled the vote, fearing his nationalist Fatah party would lose.

He was elected in 2005 to what should have been a four-year term, but stubbornly clings to power in the West Bank. Two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign. For the past two weeks, his police have cracked down on protests meant to show solidarity with Gaza and Jerusalem. A majority of Palestinians in the West Bank feel the Abbas government is corrupt and authoritarian, and most Gazans say the same about Hamas.

As the artillery falls silent, it will mean only a return to the moribund status quo. There have been no meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014. The steady growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the schism between Fatah and Hamas, have helped foreclose any possibility of a two-state solution.

This article was last updated on Friday, May 21.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "US sidelined in Israel–Hamas negotiations".

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Gregg Carlstrom is a Middle East correspondent for The Economist.