By Patsy Widakuswara
The decision by Israel and Hamas to extend their temporary truce in Gaza from four days to six has raised expectations that both sides will agree to further extensions to allow for more hostage swaps and humanitarian aid to enter the Palestinian enclave.
Washington is stepping up efforts to extend the pause that allowed the release of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention. CIA Director Bill Burns was in Doha on Tuesday meeting his Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari counterparts.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be back in the region later this week with stops including Dubai, the West Bank and Israel.
The latest Israel-Hamas deal brought the number of Israelis freed to 60. An additional 21 hostages have been released in separate negotiations.
“We want to get them all back,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters on Tuesday.
One hundred fifty Palestinians have been released from Israeli prisons, but thousands remain.
While the administration considers the brief truce a diplomatic win, it has also placed more pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to make the stop in fighting permanent.
The White House has so far resisted demands from human rights activists and the progressive wing of Biden’s Democratic Party to end U.S. support for Israel’s strikes and push for a permanent cease-fire. Administration officials repeatedly say that at this point, humanitarian relief can be achieved only through hostage deals that allow temporary stops on Israeli attacks and more aid to flow in.
“Short-term pauses are entirely insufficient to meet the needs on the ground and to address human rights conditions on the ground,” said Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
On Wednesday, his group and others will be presenting nearly 1 million signatures calling on Biden to use his influence to bring about a sustained cease-fire in Gaza.
“More and more Americans want this cease-fire,” he told VOA. Fifty-three percent of American voters support calls for a cease-fire, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
Changing US calculus
The United States has staunchly supported Israel’s right to defend itself since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks killed 1,200 people in Israel. However, as the number of Palestinian deaths grows — topping 14,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — the administration has been increasingly vocal that Israel must minimize civilian harm. Last week, Biden said he is considering making aid to Israel conditional based on its conduct in the war.
Mounting Arab and international pressure, along with domestic anger, is changing the administration’s calculus, said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East political analyst. Biden is now “attempting to strike a moderate tone that addresses competing priorities,” Alkhatib told VOA.
Domestic pressure comes not only from Arab Americans, American Muslims and some Democrats but also from a Jewish group advocating for American leadership to end the conflict diplomatically.
In a statement released Tuesday, the group J Street urged the Biden administration to insist that Israel significantly change its military operation, make clear that the U.S. “will not provide unbounded support for a war with no limits and no exit strategy” and reject “any future Israeli occupation, annexation or blockade in Gaza.”
It’s a delicate balance for Biden to navigate.
Pushing too hard on Netanyahu, who is already under immense domestic pressure from the families of the more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas, may backfire. Already anxious that a long pause will give Hamas time to regroup and reposition its forces, the Israeli war Cabinet is worried that prisoner swaps are boosting Hamas’ popularity in the occupied West Bank.
And as administration officials often underscore, the U.S. is not the one drawing up Israel’s war plans and battlefield decisions.
“We’re providing advice. We’re providing our perspectives,” Kirby said.
Analysts say a permanent cease-fire would require one of two developments: the dismantling of Hamas’ ability to rule Gaza and the stripping of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, of munitions and infrastructure. Or, that Israel and Hamas forge a long-term agreement that entails fundamental changes.
The prospects of the latter appear dim as Israel and Hamas have fundamentally incompatible goals — each other’s destruction.
“It’s much more likely that Israel will destroy Hamas than vice versa,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “But these are not two groups that could work out a reasonable compromise on strategic long term and states,” he told VOA.
While the Qassam Brigades can be weakened and Hamas’ governance structures can be toppled, rooting out the group that has been in control of Gaza since it won the 2006 election there is a different matter.
“Whatever remains of Hamas politically after the Gaza war is over may be incentivized to join the Palestinian Authority in pursuit of this solution, something that Hamas’ Politburo has endorsed as a favorable option,” Alkhatib said.
Biden and his aides have said that for a permanent cease-fire to succeed, there must be a road map toward a two-state solution. Without it, conditions will be ripe for a similar group to emerge, even if Hamas had been dismantled.
Paradoxically, there will be more pressure on Israel to allow the Palestinian Authority to govern in Gaza if Hamas is sufficiently degraded, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University.
Ideally for Israel and the U.S., it’s a reformed Palestinian Authority that is “less corrupt, more free, better economically,” he told VOA. It’s unclear whether those reforms can be achieved, and whether Israel can provide the support for them under the current right-wing coalition, he added.
Anita Powell contributed to this report.