Talks of ‘pause’ for hostages. The battlefield. The future of Gaza. Risk of regional war. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ceasefire calls intensify amid unfolding catastrophe in Gaza

A Palestinian boy carries a makeshift white flag as he walks with his mother.
A Palestinian boy carries a makeshift white flag as he walks with his mother near the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
Credit: Bashar Taleb / AFP

Talks of ‘pause’ for hostages

Israel rejected calls for a ceasefire in Gaza this week but signalled it may allow brief cessations of fighting to enable aid to enter, as talks were reportedly under way about a potential three-day pause in return for the release of 12 hostages held by Hamas.

United States President Joe Biden confirmed on Tuesday that he had asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pause the fighting during a conversation on Monday. The US, Britain, Australia and others have called for humanitarian pauses, while the United Nations, Egypt, Jordan and others have called for a complete or indefinite ceasefire.

Netanyahu told America’s ABC News Israel had allowed brief “tactical pauses” to allow aid to enter and would consider further pauses but was committed to removing Hamas from power in Gaza. He said he would consider a ceasefire to secure the release of the 240 hostages being held in Gaza.

“A general ceasefire … will hamper the war effort,” Netanyahu said. “It will hamper our effort to get our hostages out, because the only thing that works on these criminals in Hamas is the military pressure that we are exerting.”

Israel vowed to oust Hamas following an attack on October 7 in which an estimated 3000 Hamas militants crossed into southern Israel from Gaza and conducted a massacre in which more than 1400 people were killed. In response, Israel launched a massive air bombardment of Gaza, a densely populated coastal strip that has about 2.3 million residents. As of Wednesday, the attacks had killed more than 10,328 people, including 4237 children, according to officials in Gaza.

Israel’s air strikes, along with its curbs on supplies of water, fuel and electricity, have led to a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters this week Gaza was facing a “crisis of humanity”, saying only a “trickle” of aid was entering compared with the growing need.

“The unfolding catastrophe makes the need for a humanitarian ceasefire more urgent with every passing hour,” he said.

Guterres urged Israel to agree to a ceasefire and called on Hamas to stop using civilians as “shields” and launching rockets at Israel.

Israel says Hamas stores its weapons and bases its command centres at civilian sites such as schools, mosques and hospitals.

Biden reportedly requested Israel agree to a three-day pause in fighting as part of a deal brokered by Qatar and the US to secure the release of 10 to 15 hostages held by Hamas. According to the Axios news site, Hamas would also reportedly verify the names of its 180 hostages. About 60 hostages are believed to be held by Islamic Jihad and other militant groups.

So far, four hostages have been released since October 7 and one was rescued by Israeli soldiers.

The battlefield

Israeli ground forces cut Gaza into two sections this week and reportedly advanced deep into Gaza City, where Hamas’s underground headquarters are believed to be located.

Since launching a ground assault in late October, Israel has concentrated on targets in northern Gaza and urged residents to evacuate to the south, though several hundred thousand are believed to still be in the north. Israeli forces this week opened a road corridor for four hours each day to allow residents to evacuate.

A resident fleeing with his family, Naseem Al-Dada, told BBC News: “We’re heading south as they told us to do. We’re walking and we don’t know where we’ll go.”

The current status of the ground assault and the results of fighting inside Gaza City are difficult to ascertain.

Hamas, an Iran-backed Palestinian group, has controlled Gaza since 2007, when it ousted the Palestinian Authority. The takeover by Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, prompted Israel to blockade Gaza, which has crippled the enclave’s economy. In the past 16 years, Hamas has built a vast network of tunnels under Gaza that has helped it to evade the blockade and is used as a base for its militant operations.

Israeli troops have reportedly been venturing deep into Gaza City, seeking to destroy tunnels as they approach Hamas’s main command centres. Israel believes Hamas’s leadership has based its main command post under Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza – a claim Hamas denies.

Hamas sources told Reuters this week it had stockpiled weapons, missiles, food and medical supplies in its tunnels and hoped to use guerilla tactics such as ambushes to hold up the Israeli assault and draw out the conflict for several months, which could allow international pressure to grow and force Israel to agree to a ceasefire. The sources said Hamas had about 40,000 fighters and operated from tunnels that were “hundreds of kilometres long and up to 80 metres deep”.

The future of Gaza

The question of who might control Gaza when the war ends remains unclear.

Israel has said it does not plan to govern Gaza if it succeeds in toppling Hamas, but Netanyahu this week said Israel would be responsible for Gaza’s overall security for an “indefinite period” after the fighting was over.

The US has proposed control of Gaza could involve the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but the Palestinian Authority is unpopular among Palestinians due to concerns about corruption and perceptions it enables Israeli control of the West Bank.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has indicated the authority will only take control of Gaza as part of broader moves to establish a Palestinian state.

“We will fully assume our responsibilities within the framework of a comprehensive political solution,” he said, according to the Wafa news agency.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank and resisted the creation of a Palestinian state. Any efforts to resurrect a peace process may prove even more difficult in the wake of the October 7 attacks.

Risk of regional war

In the north of Israel, violence has been escalating amid daily clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed movement based in Lebanon. Hezbollah has fired barrages of rockets at Israeli towns and troops, while Israel has responded with air strikes and artillery shelling.

The deadly clashes have prompted concerns an all-out war could erupt, which would leave Israel fighting two Iranian proxies and could lead to a wider conflict involving Iran and the US. The US has deployed aircraft carrier groups to the region and dispatched a nuclear-powered submarine this week, saying it wanted to deter Iran from entering the war.     

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said Israel would retaliate to any attacks by Hezbollah, warning that entering the war alongside Hamas would be the “mistake of a lifetime”.

Hezbollah, which is stronger than Hamas and is estimated to have 150,000 missiles, reportedly coordinates military operations with Hamas via a joint operations room in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, last week gave his first public comments since October 7, praising Hamas’s rampage in Israel and saying Hezbollah had been conducting daily operations against Israel. He did not declare war but said “all options are open on the Lebanese front”.

“Some say I’m going to announce that we have entered the battle,” he said in a speech. “We already entered the battle on October 8.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Ceasefire calls intensify amid ‘unfolding catastrophe’ in Gaza".

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