April 29, 2024

IntelBrief: Still No End in Sight for the War in Gaza

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Diametrically opposing Israeli and Hamas goals have hindered progress toward a Gaza ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages.
  • Unable to compel Hamas to accept a temporary ceasefire, Qatar has threatened to end its mediation efforts.
  • With ceasefire negotiations mostly stalled, Israel is likely to launch its offensive soon to defeat the remaining organized Hamas militia units in Rafah.
  • Israel continues to differ with U.S. and major Arab leaders on post-war governance of Gaza and broader Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As of the end of April, several rounds of negotiations on another temporary ceasefire and a release by Hamas of many of its remaining 130 Israeli hostages (of which 36 are believed deceased) have not reached agreement. Hamas has refused all recent Israeli offers for a ceasefire of approximately six weeks and a release of the 40 remaining women and child Israeli hostages. In early April, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh rejected the latest ceasefire proposal, stating: “We are committed to our demands,” including for a permanent ceasefire, Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the return of Palestinians displaced from northern Gaza, and an “honorable prisoner exchange deal.” Still, Egyptian officials were in Israel on April 26 to present new proposals, keeping alive hope that an agreement could be reached that might head off an Israeli push on the remaining Hamas stronghold in Rafah. The resumption of ceasefire talks suggests that the U.S. and Israel are looking past the recent Israel-Iran confrontations to return their focus to the Gaza crisis.

Still, it is unclear whether U.S. and regional diplomats can find a workable solution to the fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the Israeli and Hamas positions. Israel seeks the release of all hostages, after which it intends to resume the war to eliminate Hamas’ military and political infrastructure from Gaza. Hamas, in the view of Israeli officials and most analysts, insists on a permanent ceasefire that would enable the group to survive the war and regroup as the pre-eminent political and security force in the Gaza Strip. From that outcome, the group might continue its role as the primary resistance force to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Some Israeli security officials assess Hamas as intent on carrying out more attacks that match the October 7 incursion into Israel, which killed more than 1,200 Israelis, although presumably Israeli forces would be more alert to a future attack than was the case on October 7. The wide gap between the warring parties appears to have frustrated the central ceasefire mediator, Qatar, which was pivotal to the November ceasefire and hostage release agreement. On April 18, following Israeli and some U.S. congressional criticism of Qatar’s inability to compel Hamas to accept a ceasefire agreement, Qatari Prime and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a Doha news conference “Qatar is in the process of a complete re-evaluation of its [mediation] role.”

With prospects for a ceasefire still limited, Israel reportedly is gearing up for its long-awaited offensive on Rafah, the last bastion of Hamas’ organized militia forces. Four Hamas battalions are said to be still operating there, and most experts assess that the two main leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, have retreated to underground locations there, along with the remaining hostages. Israeli leaders assess that defeating organized Hamas resistance there might enable intelligence operatives to find the Hamas chiefs and orchestrate significant hostage rescue and recovery attempts. However, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) do not seem to have forces assembled for an imminent Rafah offensive. Israeli leaders appear to be responding, at least in part, to U.S. pressure not to proceed with a Rafah assault unless it has formulated a viable plan to protect the nearly 1.4 million Gaza civilians that have fled there from fighting in the areas further north. On April 25, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Defense News: “We have been absolutely clear about our grave concerns about an invasion of Rafah…We believe there are other ways to do it than an invasion. That is what we’ve talked to the Israelis about.”  Because insurgencies “win by not losing,” it is likely in the event the IDF does launch an assault on Rafah, remaining Hamas units will seek to frustrate Israeli efforts to locate the hostages and Hamas leadership. To stress the leverage it continues to exercise through its continued holding of Israeli hostages, Hamas released a video in late April of one dual Israeli-American citizen who was injured and taken back to Gaza on October 7. Hamas appears to be calculating that pressure from the families of the Israeli hostages on the Netanyahu government can delay or forestall major Israeli ground action in Rafah.

Underpinning U.S. objections to a Rafah attack are not only concerns about civilian casualties but also the potential to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation for Gaza’s total population of 2.2 million people. U.S. official briefings in late April stated that more than half of the population in northern Gaza is facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity, and nearly 30% of children in northern Gaza are showing signs of severe malnutrition. In southern Gaza, nearly a quarter of the population is facing catastrophic food insecurity. Still, U.S. officials pointed to progress over the past month – after President Biden implied the U.S. might alter its policy unless Israeli leaders addressed concerns about civilian casualties and the insufficient flow of humanitarian aid to the enclave. According to U.S. officials, several land routes and crossings have been opened by Israel, and the U.S. military is on track to complete a maritime corridor to increase the delivery of humanitarian aid by the target timeframe of early May. However, an incident of mortar fire against the offshore pier being constructed by U.S. forces points to the risks of the U.S. strategy to increase the flow of aid.

More broadly, there appears to be no progress on establishing post-war governance in Gaza. The lack of viable governing authority in areas in which Hamas’ units have been defeated is complicating the humanitarian situation and will hinder Israeli efforts to move civilians back to their homes in advance of any Rafah offensive. Many U.S. and global experts on counterinsurgency argue that without establishing viable civilian governance in the enclave, it will not be possible to prevent Hamas from posing an ongoing threat to IDF forces in Gaza or from continuing to launch rockets at Israeli territory. U.S. officials are pressing the Netanyahu government to agree to empower the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) to return as the political authority in Gaza, as it was prior to its expulsion by Hamas in 2007. However, Netanyahu and his rightist coalition argue the PA is corrupt, harbors Palestinian terrorist factions, and stokes hatred for Israel. His coalition appears to believe restoring PA authority in Gaza will further U.S., European, and Arab efforts to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel (“two-state solution’). U.S. officials and their regional and global counterparts argue the PA can be reformed with international and regional support, and there is no alternative viable Palestinian-led governing authority for Gaza. Reflecting U.S. frustration over differences with Israel and the stalled ceasefire talks, Secretary of State Blinken told CNN on April 26 that U.S. officials are considering advancing a framework for the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with a two-state solution proposal for Israel and the Palestinians - before a Gaza ceasefire is in place. That plan would mark a reversal of the order of events that U.S. officials had previously expected to follow. Despite the disagreements among the major parties and stakeholders in the conflict, the continued involvement of U.S., regional, and global diplomats provides hope that a solution for the Gaza war can become evident in the coming weeks and months.