With so many news stories competing for our attention, one of the most important events in the ongoing war in West Asia has gone relatively unanalysed. It is the four-day ceasefire between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the militant Palestinian organisation, Hamas. Negotiated by Qatar, Egypt and the US, it came into effect on November 24, capping weeks of fitful indirect negotiations and setting the stage for a tense period that could determine the course of the war set off by Hamas’s raid on October 7.
Qatar announced that 50 Israeli hostages will be released in exchange for what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Those freed by both sides will be women and minors. The plan is for the hostages, among the 240 people abducted last month, to be released in groups during this period. Once the first batch is released, Israel is expected to free the first group of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are those arrested for stone throwing and other acts of violence in 2022-23. Almost 7,000 Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli custody.
The agreement also includes opening a passage to supply a limited amount of humanitarian supplies and fuel, especially for hospitals. No humanitarian aid is likely to be allowed to North Gaza, where a
very limited number of civilians still continue to live in the intense war zone. The quantities to South Gaza are indeterminate. In fact, this is the bait that Israel will probably use to allow more hostages to be released—a calibrated release of humanitarian aid in return for hostages. Though awkward, there is legitimacy in such a strategy. Hamas and its supporters would claim that withholding humanitarian aid is a war crime, but Israel has legitimacy in claiming that holding hostages, especially innocent civilians, is perhaps a bigger war crime.
There is no certainty about the restrictions on military activity, though use of the Israeli air force against targets and the firing of rockets and missiles by Hamas are both to be suspended. There appears to be no restriction on organised movement. In the absence of this, movements by small sub-units of the IDF could be executed to improve the tactical configuration of deployments, but may draw fire and lead to a potential breakdown of the ceasefire. Israel has stated that its aircraft will continue to fly for only six hours over North Gaza during the ceasefire. Nothing is mentioned about the dropping of munitions but it is safe to presume that an interlude with bombs falling from the sky would not qualify as a ceasefire.
There is no mention of drones. All of the above is important for the potential ceasefires that may be agreed subsequently, because fighting and ceasefires are likely to become a part of the ongoing standoff. Ceasefires can sometimes be used for strategic and tactical purposes for a variety of reasons. Messaging while the battle is on has unpredictable outcomes. Long ceasefires are therefore useful to clearly communicate mutual intent. A ceasefire period is also used to gain intelligence and prepare for missions. A major breach of the ceasefire can lead to greater trust deficit and, consequently, future ceasefires would be at stake. The preparation that ensues and the speed and intensity with which hostilities resume once the ceasefire period is over, may lead to a subsequent reluctance to stop the momentum.
In the present case, it is clearly Hamas which benefits from a break in the relentless pressure exerted in North Gaza and affords an opportunity for humanitarian supplies to come in. There are no peacekeepers on the ground to monitor, so the bulk of the logistics coming in the form of humanitarian aid will bolster Hamas fighters. For the IDF, the break from operations is not really necessary because logistics is not a problem for them. The only reason for the break is the chance to get back a few hostages.
There is apparently some talk of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) determining the state of the remaining hostages and their physical well-being. This, too, is usual but neither Hamas nor the ICRC has confirmed it. This being a war with few ethics, every proposal for ceasefire has to be looked upon with suspicion. The IDF could be even more destructive in its approach if there were no hostages involved. The presence of hostages forces softer options and the scope of more ceasefires. As operations progress, each hostage is likely to be worth his weight in gold because Hamas will aim to extract the maximum in exchange. At some point, this is going to get stuck in intense negotiations depending on what each side can extract from the other. Israel will be under greater pressure to relent on allowing more humanitarian assistance.
If Hamas now concentrates on resisting the IDF’s advances into South Gaza, it will bear the advantage of having a human shield of innocent civilians. Ceasefire arrangements to evacuate civilians stuck in the battle zone may have to be more frequent. The IDF would need to take a call but it would be hamstrung by the hostages in custody. Hamas can take it up to a point with the number of hostages it has in custody. It will probably retain an optimum number for negotiations. With all hostages released in exchange for prisoners, it would have no bargaining tool to fall back upon. That is a situation it will avoid. At later stages, ceasefires could be negotiated for the purpose of the IDF’s withdrawal from certain pockets of occupation in exchange for hostages. Hamas’s strategy to take maximum hostages was perhaps aimed at following this methodology.
Israel cannot afford to be in a perpetual state of mobilisation. With Israel’s population of 90 lakh, the 3.3-lakh-strong IDF cannot remain mobilised forever. Israel’s compulsion remains a final withdrawal from Gaza, with Hamas marginalised to inconsequential proportions. That does not seem possible and it may be fruitless to pursue unless a larger standing IDF is retained.
For now, the IDF is unlikely to agree to any extension of the ceasefire because that will help Hamas reorganise in unpredictable ways. Yet at some stage, Israel will have to decide what its longer strategy will be based upon. It will also depend on the political and military objectives that the leadership decides to evolve.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir