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As of this writing, the fighting in Gaza continues to rage, as the Israelis have surrounded the Hamas forces, now trapped in the elaborate tunnels that had allowed Hamas to launch its unprovoked and bloody assault against Israel on October 7—yet another day that will live in infamy—with its 1,300 Israelis dead and tortured and thousands more wounded. The fierce Israeli response has without question killed a large number of civilians, many of whom have been used by Hamas as human shields in violation of the laws of war. The proposal recently put on the table by President Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is to allow for an immediate “pause,” which the New York Times calls something short of a traditional cease-fire, even if for some indefinite duration. The humanitarian case for the pause is that it will let desperately needed supplies reach the Palestinian civilian population and will allow for the orderly movement of women and children to lands south of Gaza City in relative safety.
But the Biden proposal falls short on at least on one point. It claims that the pause gives both sides time to negotiate for the release of Hamas’s hostages. But Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu surely has the right opening negotiation gambit: there must be no pause until the hostages are unconditionally released. The sequence really matters. It is naïve to ignore that any pause for such negotiations would give Hamas a chance to draw out the negotiations indefinitely, and further to insist that certain other conditions be satisfied by the Israelis, including the release of Hamas soldiers and other prisoners in Israel now held for the commission of violent offenses—people who could rejoin the struggle once the pause has been concluded. Why is Israel bound to negotiate for the release of hostages who never should have been captured in the first place? The Israelis have already secured the release of five hostages, but no one can claim that they must now give something to Hamas in return.
As is well known, many of the hostages are not Israelis, but come from other countries. Thus, the total includes some 54 citizens of Thailand, none of whom has dual citizenship with Israel, and at least 138 hostages with foreign passports from places like Argentina, Germany, the United States, France, and Russia, some of whom may well be dual Israeli citizens. One of the marks of terrorism is the indiscriminate use of force, and Hamas has yet again exceeded the bounds of decency by holding these innocent parties in its attempt to extract gains from Israel. It is within Hamas’s power to release these persons—all of them—immediately, and to account for those who have died during their long ordeal. For anyone to insist that the hostage release become part of some negotiations puts these captives at undue risk.
So why do not Biden, Blinken, and the Times board see that they are being played for fools when they ignore the sensible, indeed morally obligatory, precondition that could be put on the table, especially against any supposed pause that contains no built-in (say twenty-four-hour) limitation to remove the hostages once and for all from the equation?
There are other reasons why a pause does not look like any kind of solution. It is well known that Hamas continues, by a combination of force and guile, to keep many Palestinians in harm’s way in Gaza City, including at its reported headquarters under Al-Shifa Hospital. The United Nations has forfeited its chance to be a credible intermediary given its own pronouncements. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, for instance, has said unconditional release of hostages “should not be linked and should not be used as bargaining chips.” The United Nations’ humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, claimed that “parallel tragedies” in Israel and the Gaza Strip over the past days are a “blight on our collective conscience.” But these tragedies are not parallel. It was Hamas that unleashed hostilities, and their immediate impact was welcomed by a large portion of the Palestinian people. The UN spokesmen show striking naivete by assuming that the so-called pause could achieve its goal, when it is far more likely only to stoke massive demonstrations against Israel and the United States throughout major cities, including in Iran, by activists who care nothing about the release of hostages.
The United Nations, which refuses to condemn Hamas’s brutality, has now had more than four weeks to try to extricate Palestinians from Gaza City and its immediate environs. But I am not aware of any efforts to send in UN buses, clearly marked as such, to remove women, children, and the elderly. It is not credible to assume that the Israelis would oppose such an evacuation. Yet the United Nations has made no such proactive effort. So, Hamas and the United Nations have it in their joint power to slow-walk the initial pause until it morphs itself into a de facto cease-fire, leaving Hamas secure in its home base and ready to be rebuilt with financial support from its current benefactors, Iran, Qatar, and the United Nations itself.
There is another telling omission from the UN account. As the New York Times editorial board noted, Hamas is “a terrorist group whose founding charter called for nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state.” Its stated goal necessarily carries with it the dual threat to kill all Israelis or to force them out of their homes under the threat of murder, made all too credible by the butchery of October 7. But one can look in vain to see any acknowledgment that Hamas as a group has to be eliminated for there to be any chance of long-term stability in the middle East. Do the United Nations and the Times support this end, do they simply wish to duck the issue, or do they want to put Hamas back on life support? There is only silence.
An op-ed in the Times by Israeli President Isaac Herzog suffers from no such delusions: he makes clear that Hamas must go, and he points out the travesty that followed the unilateral, complete withdrawal from Gaza that Israel carried out in 2005, seeking to trade “land for peace,” which included removal of some 8,500 settlers by force. Can anyone say that since Hamas has taken control over the Gaza Strip it has, as was once predicted, turned Gaza into the “Hong Kong of the Middle East”?
A general maxim in commercial negotiations it to “put your best foot forward.” You put your best foot forward when seeking mutual gain with potential trading partners. That first step operates as a signal that you are prepared to negotiate in good faith for mutual advantage, which includes not just a one-time short term gain but also a long-term stable relationship. Israel tried that in 2005. The strategy did not pan out, because you can never follow that strategy with an implacable enemy whose only objective is your destruction. Instead, you would have to be satisfied that making any such agreement leaves you better off, even if your enemy were to breach the agreement in the worst possible way.
In 2005, there was an enormous debate over whether Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza met that test by ridding Israel of the onerous duties of direct government of a restive population. Standing against that potential benefit were the lesser armed conflicts in Gaza in 2008-9 (twenty-three days), 2012 (eight days), 2014 (fifty days), and 2021 (eleven days), all of which were simplistically described by Al-Jazeera as “Israel’s attacks on Gaza.” Left unmentioned, let alone condemned, were Hamas’s initial territorial aggressions. Needless to say, Al-Jazeera’s recent posts do not reference Hamas’s initial onslaught, instead describing Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack as “a response to the desecration [sic] of the Al-Aqsa Mosque [a holy site to both religions in East Jerusalem] and increased settler violence,” as if any actions there could justify wholesale slaughter miles away, many months in the making.
In the end, a conditional pause may make sense, but not the unconditional pause sought by the Biden administration, the United Nations, the New York Times, and too many others.Published in