Gaza and the Elusive Cease-Fire


The political gap between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Biden has never been wider. The Israelis have cleaned out most of the tunnels and fortifications in the north of Gaza, perhaps with less military resistance than they had expected at the beginning. One recent tally put Israeli military casualties at 574 as of February 18. In sharp contrast, the Palestinian death toll reported by the Gaza Health Ministry was just under 30,000, including some 12,300 children and 8,400 women as of that same date. Now the war moves into its final stages of the assault on Rafah at the southern end of Gaza, where more than a million Palestinian refugees are in the line of fire. Virtually all 2.3 million Gazans have been displaced since the Israeli attacks after October 7. The Israelis have now broken through at Khan Younis’s Nasser Medical Complex in a determined push to rout Hamas. Palestinian deaths and displacements have increased the political pressure on Israel.

In the short run, Biden has proposed a six-week cease-fire in order to work out, first, a release for hostages as part of a pathway to peace, with an eye toward a long-term, two-state solution. Elsewhere, the leader of the British Labor party, Keir Starmer, has called for a “lasting cease-fire” between Israel and Hamas, with no conditions attached. Both of these proposals are seriously out of line on three issues: hostage release, a cease-fire, and a two-state solution.

First, what is the status of the hostages (and the bodies of hostages) in Hamas’s hands? The one unambiguous conclusion of the International Court of Justice—no friend of Israel—appears in this final decree: “[The ICJ] is gravely concerned about the fate of hostages abducted during the attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 . . . and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.” The clear inference is that nothing is left to negotiate, so that Hamas is in major breach of its humanitarian obligations when it maneuvers to trade the hostages for anything, whether it be a return of prisoners lawfully convicted and detained by Israel, or the removal of Israeli troops from Gaza, or the implementation of any further cease-fire. Any call by a third party for negotiations only legitimates Hamas’s lawless actions. But in none of the repeated heated exchanges between Biden and Netanyahu has the president acknowledged that Hamas remains unrepentant. Indeed, it appears that Biden has even given up demanding the release of the American hostages, or bodies, still in Hamas’s hands.

In an illustration of the danger of unilateral concessions, Biden sent his emissaries to Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest concentration of Arabs in the United States. Biden remains intent on mending fences with Palestinians and Arabs who have been sharply critical of his political and military support for the Israelis after October 7. In their face-to-face conversations, the Biden team acknowledged its “missteps” in responding to the Israeli war plans. Those remarks were then followed by his statement that the Israeli military response was “over the top.” His position is not one he holds alone, for Amnesty International stated that “the world” noted that the ICJ had demanded “provisionally” that Israel refrain from violating the genocide convention, and, in the words of its secretary general, Agnès Callamard, that “the world will not stand by in silence as Israel pursues a ruthless military campaign to decimate the population of the Gaza Strip and unleash death, horror, and suffering against Palestinians on an unprecedented scale.” She also “urged” Hamas to release all hostages as part of a general cease-fire—no condemnation.

Yet nothing was said by either the ICJ or Amnesty International about the state of war on the ground, as conducted by both Israel and Hamas. Critics such as these have made no mention of the multiple specific precautions Israelis have taken to minimize civilian casualties. John Spencer, a military expert who teaches at West Point, has explained in great detail how Israel has deployed extensive intelligence in tracking cell phone activity and using satellite imaging to first locate, and then avoid, large civilian populations. In addition, the Israelis have routinely given civilians warnings that allow them to move to relative safety, even though the warnings give Hamas time to shore up its own defenses. But none of this evidence made it to the ICJ, which looked only at the dubious evidence presented by South Africa—which worked hand in glove with Hamas—on the scope of Israeli activities.

The balance is even more skewed because of the active steps Hamas has taken to increase the death toll of its own civilians. The revelations that Hamas locates its command facilities below hospitals are yet further evidence that it deliberately exposes Palestinian women and children to risk of death and injury. News articles mention that some employees of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) cooperated with the October attack. The ICJ and others ignored Hamas’s firing rockets into Israeli territory, which has forced Israel to evacuate thousands of its citizens in the vicinity of Gaza. Palestinian death figures are further inflated because Hamas refuses to separately record military and civilian deaths, it uses children as human shields to ward off Israeli attacks, it dresses its fighters in civilian clothes, and it tries to prevent Palestinian refugees from moving to safer locations. Hamas also diverts foreign relief to its own warlike ends. But to the world, these thousands of deaths are attributable only to the Israelis, who throughout have complied with the rules of war that Hamas routinely flouts.

A cease-fire is needed to stem the death toll in Gaza, but an unconditional truce will not work: any such cease-fire would give Hamas a chance to regroup for yet another assault on Israel. But if Hamas wants that cease-fire, all it need do is to release the hostages, at which point joint efforts might be made to create a safe zone in Sinai under Egyptian auspices where women and children could go for food and shelter, allowing the Israelis to isolate and destroy the Hamas forces with far less collateral damages. Instead, Hamas has demanded an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which is a nonstarter. And Egypt refuses to admit any refugees given its concerns “about the displacement of Palestinians and regional security issues,” although it is reportedly preparing safe areas for displaced people.

If the short-term situation is bad, the long-term situation is worse. The Biden administration is “actively pursuing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with real securities guarantees for Israel.” What kind of deal can be made with sworn enemies who continue to claim Israel was “entirely responsible” for the October 7 massacre of its own citizens, and who call for the death or exile of all Israelis? Where is the honest broker in the Palestinian Authority, which has not uttered a single word of condemnation of the October attacks that were greeted with wild enthusiasm? Not one Palestinian has condemned them.

Given that Hamas has mounted many attacks on Israel over the years, what reason is there to think it will have a change of heart if the international community continues to reward Hamas for its treachery?

The fatal flaw in any such proposal is an untenable quid pro quo. The Palestinian state will receive some particular tangible and irreversible benefits today in exchange for a set of ambiguous promises from an unknown set of guarantors (who have no recognizable obligation to perform) tomorrow. Elliott Abrams sums up the problems in his incisive commentary, “Forget the Two State Solution.” The standard proposals all call for a demilitarized Palestine state, an unenforceable minimum condition. No one knows its boundaries. Redividing Jerusalem would be a security nightmare. And who is going to prevent Palestinians from smuggling arms into that state? The United Nations is hopeless, the United States is fickle, the ICJ is biased, and the rest of the world is overtly hostile to Israel. Yet if the Israelis were to enter the new Palestine on their own initiative to stop some massive buildup of weapons, a hostile world would find that the incursion excuses the new Palestinian state from any sanctions. As a state, it would be eligible for membership in the United Nations, where it could provoke routine condemnations of Israel that might be combined with real sanctions.

The status quo is horrible. But everything else is worse, so long as Israel is the only party of whom fatal concessions are demanded.

© 2023 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University

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  1. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward

    Richard Epstein:

    In sharp contrast, the Palestinian death toll reported by the Gaza Health Ministry was just under 30,000, including some 12,300 children and 8,400 women as of that same date.

    Your article brings up some good points, but why in the world do you have to give credibility to Hamas’s death toll figures?  They are nonsense.  Couldn’t you have at least given the caveat that figures from Hamas are not trustworthy?  Like when they claimed 500 people were killed in the bombing of a hospital that later turned out to be about 35 people in the parking lot from a Hamas rocket.  By that ratio, we could compute Hamas’s 30,000 death figure into about 2,100 deaths.

    This reminds me of when Ossama Bin Laden picked a figure out of thin air with no means of verification, by suddenly claiming that one-million Iraqis were killed in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  We had news organizations and politicians quoting the one-million deaths figure without the least bit of skepticism or critical thought.

    • #1
  2. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann

    I agree with @StevenSeward. Hamas has no credibility. What they are doing is what Palestinians have always done, inflating death tolls of innocents. When none occur they invent them, and use Paliwood to create appropriate scenes.

    I was thinking about the alleged  rapes by Israeli soldiers last night. The whole concept is beyond absurd. The attempts by Hamas and its fellow travelers to somehow create moral equivalency between the actions they took on October 7th and the Israeli invasion in response to that attack goes into the realm of the ridiculous.

    Netanyahu set out to destroy Hamas, to render it no longer able to make attacks like October 7th ever again. Anything less would be a betrayal of the people of Israel. The Palestinians may claim to love death, but maybe they haven’t experienced enough of it yet to understand that it is permanent and ugly, and that the only way to keep it from happening is to stop creating reasons for them to be attacked.  They need to understand that their leaders are all too willing to sacrifice the lives of their people while they sit comfortably in their warrens in Qatar. It is pretty typical of the so called terrorists.

    As to Biden, he is a yellow bellied, spineless old fool. When this thing started I had no doubt that Afghanistan was the prototype that he would follow. I am sure that Bebe did as well. I have heard pundits like John Podhoretz make elaborate praise about Biden’s support, but they are deluding themselves. Biden is no friend of anyone who doesn’t write him or his son a check. Depending on him to stand with Israel is a pipe dream, especially when he is a weather vane for his party and so many Democrats are antisemites.

    Hamas isn’t about to give up fighting or the hostages. Until they do all talk of a ceasefire is total nonsense. All talk of a Palestinian state while Hamas is in charge is beyond foolish.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Richard Epstein: The status quo is horrible. But everything else is worse, so long as Israel is the only party of whom fatal concessions are demanded.

    I appreciate very much the entire post, but especially the statement I copied here.

    • #3
  4. DaveSchmidt Coolidge

    Today I watched this Prager U video 

    It is a 40 minute interview.  Kemp offers an expert assessment of  the global importance of the current round of conflict.  

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Today I watched this Prager U video

    It is a 40 minute interview. Kemp offers an expert assessment of the global importance of the current round of conflict.

    I’m just about to watch it, Dave!

    • #5
  6. Rodin Member

    “The status quo is horrible. But everything else is worse….”

    That is as apt a summary as can be imagined. 

    • #6
  7. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):
    Biden is no friend of anyone who doesn’t write him or his son a check.

    And he has been that way all his life: No morals, only a lust for power and money and status.

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):
    Depending on him to stand with Israel is a pipe dream, especially when he is a weather vane for his party and so many Democrats are antisemites.

    And Democrats are very determined to import millions of antisemitic (and anti-Christian) future voters.

    • #7
  8. Metalheaddoc Member

    Israel is fighting Hamas to win a war that Hamas started and to safeguard its people and prevent their extermination. 

    Biden is fighting Israel to win Michigan. He is a self-serving egotistical jerk, as he has been his entire political career. 

    • #8
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