Beyond the limited ceasefire

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 28 Mar 2024

The humanitarian disaster in Gaza may be forging new political realities, but it is unlikely to spare Rafah from an Israeli offensive.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour addresses United Nations Security Council
Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour addresses United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters (photo: AP)


This week, Israel and Hamas seemed to be stepping away from the positions that had blocked a deal for a temporary truce in Gaza.

Hamas loosened its demand for a comprehensive ceasefire and a full Israeli withdrawal as a precondition for any handover of Israeli hostages held since 7 October.

“Hamas is now willing to negotiate a partial handover of hostages in return for a temporary truce,” said an informed source. He added that Israel had also shown “some flexibility” in the latest round of Doha-hosted negotiations.

The Israeli delegation is exhibiting some willingness, albeit cautious, to negotiate access for humanitarian aid to northern Gaza, and a degree of flexibility over the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released from Israeli jails in a truce/hostage deal, said the source.

“I think both parties are becoming aware that they are losing,” said an Egyptian source close to the joint Egyptian-Qatari mediation. He explained that Hamas “cannot be blind to the significant losses it has sustained on the ground, not just in terms of its militant capacity but also in terms of support among the population of Gaza.”

“And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not admit it, Israel is losing on the diplomatic front. There is the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, and increasingly explicit criticism from the Europeans, and now the Americans.”

On Monday, Israel suffered a significant diplomatic set-back when, despite an intense Israeli campaign in Washington, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US permanent representative to the UN, abstained during the vote on a draft resolution tabled by the 10 non-permanent members of the council calling for an immediate ceasefire covering the remaining two weeks of Ramadan.

According to Maged Abdel-Fattah, head of the Arab League mission to the UN, the Arab group in New York lobbied hard to secure the support of the other four permanent members of the UNSC. Ultimately, he said, this lobbying prevailed over Israel’s opposition to the draft resolution. It passed with the support of 14 member states, a result which met with applause from some delegations.

Abdel-Fattah argues that the US abstention suggests negotiations for a truce conducted via Egyptian-Qatari mediation are making progress.

Many Arab capitals, including Cairo and Doha, were happy with the adoption of the resolution. A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Egypt welcomed the resolution calling for a ceasefire after the UNSC had repeatedly failed to support earlier motions.

The resolution was openly supported by European powers, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying its implementation “is vital for the protection of all civilians”.

While Hamas said it was ready to press ahead with a prisoner-hostage swap, Israel appeared wrongfooted. Netanyahu immediately suspended a planned trip by an Israeli delegation to Washington to discuss the next phase of the war, including Israeli plans to attack Rafah. In response, US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said that the administration was “perplexed” by the decision to cancel the visit which was scheduled to discuss US concerns over any possible offensive in southern Gaza.

Tensions between the US and Israel have been mounting as the humanitarian situation in Gaza has grown worse. Washington has repeatedly appealed to Israel to take the growing American and international outcry over its killing of civilians, targeting of medical infrastructure, and restrictions on humanitarian aid into account.

With tensions over Israeli plans to attack Rafah mounting, US officials’ carefully worded criticisms of their ally have become increasingly public. US President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, CIA Chief William Burns, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have spoken openly about the urgent need to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Speaking less than 24 hours before the US abstained on the UNSC resolution, Harris called for an immediate ceasefire, saying it would be a huge mistake to attack Rafah and warning Israel of the “consequences” of any assault.

Diplomatic sources expect that this week’s Washington talks between Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will convey the same concerns delivered to Israel by Blinken and Burns during their repeated visits to the Middle East.

“The US has been supporting Israel almost unconditionally for over five months, during which time Netanyahu has ignored US calls to share his plans on what will happen after the war ends or how Israel intends to evacuate civilians from Rafah,” says Hisham Youssef, a former senior Arab League negotiator on the Arab-Israeli struggle. “The US has grown increasingly frustrated by Netanyahu, leading to a gradual shift in the US position.”

“Public opinion is also shifting against Israel’s atrocities, in the US and globally.”

There is serious American concern, on the humanitarian and political fronts, over the consequences of an Israeli offensive on Rafah, adds Youssef, and Washington is well aware of the consequences on Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Egypt’s border with Gaza this week. Guterres said he had come to Rafah “to spotlight the pain of Palestinians in Gaza… [as they] remain stuck in a non-stop nightmare” and called on Israel to remove all obstacles to the entry of aid.

Israel has repeatedly shrugged off criticism over its blocking of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz has said the UNSC resolution will not stop Israel from continuing its war.

“Israel will probably attack Rafah,” said the Egyptian source. He added, however, that it will be hard for Netanyahu to completely ignore the recent shift in Washington’s position.

Diplomatic sources say the US is pushing to use the momentum created by the UNSC resolution to secure a deal that includes the return of all Israeli hostages, an effective civilian evacuation scheme for civilians in Rafah, the removal of surviving Hamas leaders out of Gaza, new legal measures against Hamas, and a plan for the day after the war which involves formulating administrative and security schemes that satisfy Israel.

According to Mohamed Ibrahim, a former senior Egyptian negotiator on the 2011 Gilad Shalit swap deal, this week’s UNSC resolution is a step towards a possible truce. He warned, however, that any truce remains dependent on political will, and movement from a truce to a ceasefire on continued pressure from mediators, including the US.

Diplomatic sources do not exclude the possibility of the US placing some conditionality on Israel’s use of American weapons in its war on Gaza. The US has already ordered an investigation into the possible use of weapons in Gaza in violation of international humanitarian law.

Following the UNSC vote, the Israeli press quoted informed Israeli sources expressing concern that Israel could now be in breach of a UNSC resolution, prompting further legal action against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Earlier this year, the ICJ accepted a provisional measures request from South Africa which accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. Earlier, South Africa joined Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros, and Djibouti in submitting a referral to the ICC to investigate possible Israeli crimes in Gaza.

On Monday, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said “it is now the responsibility of the United Nations Security Council to ensure that there is compliance with the resolution.”

On Tuesday, Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, was scheduled to deliver a report to the UN Human Rights Council. The Israeli press expect that Albanese, who has already been refused a visa to visit Israel, will be very critical of the impact of the war on Gaza and that the report may lead to further legal pressures.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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