July 9, 2024

IntelBrief: Gaza Ceasefire Gaps Narrow

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Israel and Hamas are edging closer to agreement on a staged ceasefire plan that U.S. and regional officials hope will end the Gaza conflict.
  • Facing military pressure, Hamas has apparently dropped its demand for guarantees that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would not resume combat in the Gaza Strip after an initial ceasefire.
  • In advance of a permanent ceasefire, Israeli leaders are trying to transfer political and security authority in Gaza to non-Hamas Palestinians.
  • Israeli leadership opposition to a role for Palestinian Authority (PA) personnel in governing post-war Gaza is softening, potentially paving the way for regionally funded reconstruction in Gaza.

U.S. and regional officials have been frustrated at the lack of movement toward the adoption of a three-phase roadmap for a settlement of the Gaza war articulated by President Joseph Biden on May 31. Even though the Biden plan was almost identical to proposals made by both Hamas and Israel, the two combatants have since raised objections and sought to shape the plan to their advantage, avoiding outright acceptance. However, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is facing significant pressure from the families of remaining Israeli hostages to agree to a compromise that brings them back home. IDF leaders also appear to want to refresh the force and improve military readiness in preparation for what might be a looming major confrontation with Lebanese Hezbollah as clashes across the Israel-Lebanon border escalate.

For its part, Hamas has faced unrelenting military pressure from the IDF, apparently prompting its leaders to seek an agreement that might enable the group to survive with some of its military capability and governing authority intact. Like other insurgent groups, Hamas leaders believe that, by not losing, the group can win. A ceasefire that leaves Hamas’ leadership intact and its political network still active could be presented by the group as a significant “victory.”

The evolving calculations of both Israeli and Hamas leaders intensified negotiations on the Biden plan in early July, triggering renewed optimism among experts and officials that a ceasefire deal could be reached, and the war ended. The critical development sparking the renewed momentum was Hamas’ reported decision to drop a key demand that Israel commits to not resume combat operations at any stage of implementation of the phased ceasefire plan. However, Hamas later rejected these reports on July 7 and said that the group has not dropped this key demand, casting further uncertainty around a final deal. On July 5, Israel sent the director of its powerful Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, to Qatar to meet with Prime Minister Mohammad bin Abdurrahman Al Thani, according to two senior Israeli officials. Barnea reportedly conveyed that Israel’s only remaining major objection is to Hamas' continuing demand for a written commitment by the United States, Qatar, and Egypt (the mediators) to restrain Israel from resuming hostilities if no agreement to move into phase two of the plan - a permanent ceasefire - is reached quickly.

Israeli officials say that if they accede to Hamas’ demands for a written commitment, the group would be able to draw out negotiations about the second phase of the deal indefinitely. In that circumstance, Israeli officials assert, it would be challenging for Israel to resume fighting without it being considered a violation of the agreement. Still, Israeli officials assessed that the parties were close enough to a deal that an "expert level" Israeli delegation would travel to Doha the week of July 8 to discuss the remaining implementation issues. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns, the key U.S. interlocutor on the ceasefire talks, will join the negotiations in Doha, as will the head of Egyptian intelligence.

Sensing that a ceasefire and possible end to the conflict might be approaching, Israeli leaders are seeking to ensure that Hamas is fully displaced as the governing authority in Gaza. A return of Hamas to full power in Gaza, were that to occur, would significantly tarnish the Israeli perceptions of its post-October 7 operations to crush the organization in Gaza. A failure to displace Hamas as a governing authority will likely cause a defection of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, triggering new elections that might oust Netanyahu as prime minister.

On July 1, the Financial Times reported that the IDF was beginning to roll out its counterinsurgency strategy to create Hamas-free “bubbles.” According to the contours of this plan, local Palestinians would slowly assume control over aid distribution responsibilities in the enclaves, initially limited to Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia. The IDF would retain security duties at least initially, and Palestinians would gradually take over civil governance. If the pilot program is successful in the north, Israel would begin creating more enclaves in the south, laying a foundation for a replacement for Hamas throughout the Gaza Strip.

Skeptics argue that the “security bubbles” pilot program will again fail, as did previous failed IDF efforts to transfer power to local Palestinian clans in various parts of central and northern Gaza. During those efforts, Hamas gunmen assassinated or intimidated any Palestinian clan members who stepped up to try to govern or organize the distribution of humanitarian aid in various neighborhoods in Gaza. Israeli officials say their new efforts will succeed because Netanyahu and his close aides have dropped their opposition to working with Palestinian Authority (PA) security personnel and members of the Fatah faction that dominates the PLO and the PA.

For months, Netanyahu’s office had directed the Israeli security establishment to exclude the PA from any of its plans for the postwar management of Gaza, hampering efforts to craft realistic proposals for what has become known as “the day after.” Israeli officials have sculpted their revised Gaza security plans to make them acceptable to Netanyahu by drawing distinctions between the PA leadership in Ramallah, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and lower-level PA employees who are part of already-established institutions in Gaza. Still, publicly, Netanyahu continues to reject the idea of PA rule over the Gaza Strip, telling Israeli journalists he was “not prepared to give [Gaza] to the PA.”

Details of the new Israeli security plan are reportedly fluid, but one option under consideration calls for Israel to train former PA personnel in Jordan and the West Bank to take over security responsibilities in the Hamas-free pockets that the IDF will be establishing. According to reports, PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj has already identified several thousand potential recruits, and the force reportedly will be trained under the command of U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel. U.S. and Israeli military personnel have long been training and working with PA security forces on the West Bank under arrangements pursuant to the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords of the early 1990s.

However, some experts caution that PA President Abbas might not authorize PA officials and security personnel to manage Gaza without an Israeli commitment to establish a political horizon that leads to a two-state solution. Similarly, the involvement of moderate Arab states in securing post-war Gaza and in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged enclave hinges on an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and others have conditioned their assistance to Gaza on a viable path to a two-state solution.

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, a majority of polled Israelis have expressed opposition to the establishment of a separate Palestinian state, calling that a “reward” for the worst act of Palestinian terrorism against Israel in memory. Even Netanyahu’s more moderate and left-leaning political opponents – many of whom have long supported negotiations that would lead to the formation of a Palestinian state – now openly oppose the concept. Yet, the United States, its European allies, and regional leaders all argue there is no long-term solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians without the formation of a Palestinian state. U.S. differences with the Netanyahu government over this issue and over Israeli operational tactics that have caused thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza have complicated the pathway to an agreement that would bring the conflict in Gaza to a conclusion.