Israel and Hamas could end their war forever now: Marc Champion

Israel and Hamas could end their war forever now: Marc Champion

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is spearheading a diplomatic drive to halt the Israel-Hamas conflict. Blinken’s proposal offers a temporary ceasefire and a pathway to Palestinian statehood, contrasting with Netanyahu’s military strategy. As tensions mount, the choice between peace and further escalation hangs in the balance, with profound implications for the region’s future.

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By Marc Champion

Each time I’ve warned against the high risk to Israel if it persists in trying to eradicate Hamas while blocking all roads toward Palestinian self-determination, I’ve drawn responses that range from thoughtful to furious, often to the effect that after the slaughter of Oct. 7, there is no other path the Jewish state can or should take. So here’s the alternative to continuing this war to its very bitter end.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his seventh trip to the region since the war began, drumming up support in Saudi Arabia for a cease-fire and settlement package, and visiting Jordan and Israel Tuesday. This arrangement has far more to offer Israel in terms of defeating Hamas and providing security than the attempt to eliminate it militarily ever could.

According to Blinken, Hamas now has before it an “extraordinarily generous” Israeli offer. It reportedly includes an initial 40-day cease-fire, and would trade a large number of prisoners for a much smaller quantity of Israeli hostages. If Hamas cared the slightest about the well-being of Palestinian civilians, it would agree today. Too few of those protesting against Israel on US campuses grasp just how much responsibility Hamas carries for the gruesome death toll that its health ministry so assiduously monitors.

This is a critical moment for both sides. The Israel Defense Forces are poised for a major assault on Rafah, where they believe Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar to be holed up with four battalions of fighters and more than 1 million Palestinian civilians. Either there’s no ceasefire and the IDF go in, setting events in motion that probably would include a new wave of civilian deaths as well as Sinwar’s, or there is a pause that makes room for a change in direction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears committed to his war strategy. On Tuesday, his office issued a statement saying: “The idea that we stop the war before achieving all its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal, in order to achieve complete victory.”

Even with his support, the more optimistic track would be difficult to achieve. How can it be easy? But I would argue it’s also less utopian than betting Israel’s long-term fate on killing even the top commanders of its weakest enemy, Hamas, and the indefinite de facto military occupation of Gaza that Netanyahu has acknowledged would then have to follow. 

By its own estimate as of April 7, the Israel Defense Forces had killed about 13,000 Hamas fighters, out of the 30,000-strong Gaza force that was estimated to have existed before the war. Tunnels have been collapsed, arms stashes — including rockets – captured or destroyed. In other words, the group’s existing military capabilities have been substantially eroded.

Clearly, the task remains unfinished, and not just in Rafah. Pockets of Hamas insurgents have resurfaced in the north, prompting the IDF to launch targeted air and ground operations there. A bevy of Hamas leaders also live untouched outside Gaza, primarily in Qatar. So victory, defined by Netanyahu as eradicating Hamas, would take a lot more war.

Along with the ceasefire and hostage release, Blinken is trying to negotiate a more lasting package in which mainly Arab nations would be persuaded to send troops to maintain order in Gaza, as well as resources for reconstruction and development.  To get that agreement, Israel would have to endorse steps toward the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. 

Why should Israelis trust such an arrangement? First, because most Arab leaders, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, loathe Hamas. Islamist, and an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s almost as hostile to their regimes as to Israel. Second, because the arrangement would replace opaque funding of Hamas by Qatar and Iran with a transparent and externally run reconstruction program for things like housing, utilities and a deepwater port in Gaza. And make no mistake, the vast majority of Palestinians would rather have this kind of building than the tunnels and rockets Hamas spent their money on.

At the same time, such a deal would normalize relations between the Jewish state and Saudi Arabia, and tie the latter into a security arrangement with the US that would offer more safety to Israel against the truly existential threats posed by the developing coalition of Iran and its proxies, supported by China and Russia, than killing Sinwar ever could.

There are some positive trends emerging in Gaza that even a temporary ceasefire could embed.  The amount of aid getting into Gaza has risen significantly in recent weeks and could soon spike much higher, given the right conditions. The World Food Kitchen, responsible for 62% of all international nonprofit aid for Gaza, said on Sunday it would resume operations, which it halted after the IDF killed seven of its personnel in drone strikes on April 1. Israel also is expected this week to reopen crossings into the North of Gaza, for the first time since October.

On top of that, the US recently committed $1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and is building a pier for deliveries by sea. In other words, the combination of a ceasefire and a surge in aid could drastically reduce the civilian suffering that has done so much to turn international opinion. Nothing can change the minds of those driven by ideology or antisemitism, of course, and they’re many. But this war has dented the faith of even some of Israel’s most loyal supporters.

So what of the other path, to date favored by Netanyahu and his coalition partners on the extreme right — and possibly still by Hamas. This is where no ceasefire is arranged, the IDF launches a major offensive in Rafah, and Gaza becomes Israel’s problem to secure and manage for the foreseeable future.

This would point to a much darker future, as suggested by unconfirmed reports in Israel’s media that the International Criminal Court is preparing arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of the General Staff Herzi Halevi, to face potential war crimes charges. Leaders of Hamas, responsible for the atrocities of Oct. 7, must surely face the same.

In this scenario, it is highly likely that civilian casualties would again soar. The main aid crossing at Rafah would be shuttered for the duration of the fight. Equally, Sinwar and diehard Hamas battalions fighting from their tunnels and with nowhere left to go, seem unlikely to surrender. Those Israeli hostages still alive would more likely be killed than released.

Why might Hamas choose this over a 40-day ceasefire? Because even with Sinwar dead, the group would still have the leaders and personnel needed to continue. His “martyrdom” would draw new recruits. With the war continuing and no prospects for Palestinians to sell at home, Arab states couldn’t get involved in any solution that might be interpreted as favorable to Israel; Netanyahu would be forced into de facto military occupation of a desperate and increasingly radicalized population.

By the same token, Iran and its proxies, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, would have license to continue their attacks, made under the guise of support for suffering Palestinians. Even in Europe and the US, supporters of the Jewish state would find their positions increasingly difficult to sustain politically.

No path Israel can take will be easy, least of all for Netanyahu, threatened with the collapse of his government by ultranationalist cabinet members if he agrees to a ceasefire. Yet he shouldn’t hesitate to call their bluff if Hamas takes the latest deal. The decisions he takes now will determine whether Israel walks alone in a dangerous region or with the support of others.

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