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A Cease-Fire in Gaza Might Be the Easy Part. Fulfilling It Will Be Harder.


Even as Hamas and the Israeli government appear to be inching closer to a cease-fire agreement, analysts are deeply skeptical that the sides will ever implement a deal that goes beyond a temporary truce.

At issue is a three-phase agreement, proposed by Israel and backed by the United States and some Arab countries, which if fully realized could eventually see the total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, the return of all remaining hostages captured in the Oct. 7 attack and a reconstruction plan for the territory.

But making it to that finish line is impossible if the parties are unwilling to even start the race or to agree on where it should end. Fundamentally, the wrangling is not just about the how long a cease-fire in Gaza should last or at what point it should be implemented, but whether Israel can ever accept a long-term truce as long as Hamas retains significant control.

For Israel to agree to Hamas’s demands for a permanent cease-fire from the start, it must acknowledge that Hamas will remain undestroyed and will play a role in the territory’s future, conditions Israel’s government cannot abide. On the flip side, Hamas says it won’t consider a temporary cease-fire without the guarantees of a permanent one that effectively ensures its survival, even at the cost of countless more Palestinian lives, lest Israel restart the war once its hostages are returned.

Yet after eight months of a grinding war, there are signs that the sides could be moving closer to the first proposed phase: a six-week conditional cease-fire. While that step is hardly guaranteed, getting to the plan’s second phase, which envisages a permanent cessation of hostilities and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, is even more unlikely, analysts said.

“It is wrong to see this proposal as more than a stopgap,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “Most important, this plan doesn’t answer the fundamental question of who rules Gaza after the conflict. This is a cease-fire plan, not a day-after plan.”

The leaders of Hamas and the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are considering what the deal will mean not only for the future of the war, but for their own political futures. In order to get buy-in from skeptical partners for the first stage of the plan, Mr. Netanyahu is especially incentivized to keep his commitments to the latter phases vague.

In each camp are influential figures willing to prolong the war. Some inside Hamas say the group, dominated by those still in Gaza, like the local leader Yahya Sinwar, should not agree to any deal that does not immediately create a permanent cease-fire. In Israel, the mere mention of stopping the war and a full troop withdrawal has led Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies to threaten to bring down his government.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman, said the group would not approve an agreement that does not begin with the promise of a permanent cease-fire and include provisions for the total withdrawal of Israeli troops and a “serious and real deal” to exchange the remaining hostages for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel.

Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general and senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that “clearly to everyone this proposal is mostly political.”

“The first stage is good for Netanyahu, because some hostages will be freed,” Mr. Brom said. “But he’ll never get to the second stage. As before, he’ll find something wrong in what Hamas does, which will not be difficult to find.”

More than 100 hostages were released under a more limited deal last November, which lasted roughly a week. Mr. Netanyahu said Hamas had not produced all promised female hostages as promised; Hamas said Israel rejected alternatives. As the truce expired, Hamas launched rockets into Israel. Since then, the war has continued unbated.

There is no guarantee this time, either, that the first phase will be succeeded by the second. That might suit Mr. Netanyahu fine, analysts agreed, pacifying the Americans with a temporary cease-fire and increased aid to Gaza while finding reasons not to move beyond that agreement.

Mr. Netanyahu is hoping, analysts said, that Hamas will not agree to the proposal at all, and thus get him off the hook. As hostilities with Hezbollah heat up in the north, he is suggesting to his allies that even if he must agree to the Gaza proposal, negotiations on the second stage could go on indefinitely.

President Biden, who laid out the plan from the White House last week, has his own political considerations in having the sides agree, sooner rather than later. He clearly wants a halt to the Gaza war well before the presidential election in November, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment, adding, “The only party really in a hurry is Biden.”

So Mr. Biden is pressing both Mr. Netanyahu and Hamas to accept the agreement quickly.

As Israeli troops have reached the Egyptian border and the war’s major operations wind down, the president has said Hamas is no longer capable of carrying out another Oct. 7-style attack and is pushing Mr. Netanyahu to publicly accept his own proposal.

Mr. Netanyahu has done his best to confuse everyone about his intentions, denying that his goal of dismantling Hamas has changed and refusing to support a permanent end to the fighting, which he called “a nonstarter” on Sunday.

Mr. Biden also emphasized that Hamas “should take the deal,” which it has not accepted, only saying that it views the proposal “positively.”

The proposal, as explained by Mr. Biden and his officials, has three stages.

In the first phase, both sides would observe a six-week cease-fire. Israel would withdraw from major population centers in Gaza and a number of hostages would be released, including women, the elderly and the wounded. The hostages would be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and detainees, their names still to be negotiated. Aid would begin flowing into Gaza, working up to some 600 trucks a day. Displaced Palestinian civilians would be allowed to return to their homes in northern Gaza.

During the first phase, Israel and Hamas would continue to negotiate to reach the second phase: a permanent cease-fire, the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza and the freeing of all remaining living hostages. If the talks take more than six weeks, the first phase of the truce will continue until they reach a deal, Mr. Biden said.

If they ever do.

Israeli officials from Mr. Netanyahu on down have insisted that Israel must retain security control over Gaza in the future, making it highly unlikely that they would agree to withdraw Israeli troops entirely from the buffer zone they have built inside Gaza. And even if they do, Israel insists on the ability to go in and out of Gaza whenever it deems necessary to combat remaining or reestablished Hamas or other fighters, as it now does in the West Bank.

As a former senior intelligence officer said, bluntly, “There is no good solution here and everyone knows it.”

Stopping the war without ensuring Hamas can’t come back presents a real dilemma, he said. But is it realistic to expect that continuing the war will achieve this aim? The release of the hostages — an estimated 125 of whom are still being held by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza, though dozens are believed to be dead — is a top priority, but it’s unclear if continuing the war increases the pressure on Hamas to make a deal for their freedom or puts the hostages who are still alive in further danger. And even if Israel stops the war after so many months of captivity, their release could take more time than they have.

The timing may also work for an agreement on the first phase, because Israel is fighting to complete its military control over Rafah, in southernmost Gaza, and the Egyptian border. The fighting, which Israel has undertaken with fewer troops, less bombing and more care for civilians after American pressure, is expected to take two or three more weeks, Israeli officials suggest, roughly the time it would take to negotiate the first phase of the cease-fire agreement.

Israeli troops are moving slowly into the more populated areas of Rafah city, pushing civilians to evacuate farther west, toward the coast and areas officially designated as safe spaces, even if housing, water, food and health care are rudimentary at best and civilians continue to die from Israeli strikes.

According to Israeli officials and the Institute for the Study of War, which is tracking the conflict, “Israeli forces continue clearing operations in central Rafah” and “intelligence-based, targeted operations.” They raided what Israel called “an active combat complex” on Monday and carried out drone and airstrikes on what was called a “Hamas weapons production site in Rafah.” Hamas fighters have responded with mortars along the border, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

With Hamas forces effectively dismantled as organized units, and fighting almost exclusively as small bands, Israel can declare the major war in Gaza over, analysts said, while continuing to battle Hamas and other fighters where they emerge or are still concentrated, opening the way for a temporary cease-fire.

“Israel has done a lot, with Hamas dramatically degraded,” Mr. Sachs said. But Israel has put nothing in place to administer Gaza when the military pulls back.

Mr. Brom concurred that Israel’s military had made real progress. “My interpretation,” he said, “is that the military and terrorist capabilities of Hamas are weakened terribly.” It is always difficult to declare victory in such an asymmetrical conflict, he said. “Did we win against Islamic State? It still exists and operates,” but much diminished.

Despite incessant American prodding, the analysts said, Mr. Netanyahu has refused to decide who or what will govern Gaza, if not Hamas.

“It should be an integrated political and military strategy, but the political side is completely lacking,” Mr. Brom said. “We can prevent Hamas from ruling Gaza, but who will replace them? That’s the Achilles’ heel of the whole operation.”



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