Israel and Hamas have extended their truce for two days — through tomorrow — which will bring the pause in fighting to six days. The deal is a sign that both sides have benefited from it.
What comes next is less clear, though.
For Israel’s leaders in particular, the pause has created a strategic dilemma. They have big reasons to extend it again — and big reasons to resume fighting.
On the one hand, many international groups and other countries support a cease-fire, pointing to the brutal death toll among Gazan civilians since Oct. 7. President Biden has also pushed for the pause to continue so long as Hamas is releasing hostages. Within Israel, families of the hostages have called on their country’s leaders to prioritize the release of all hostages.
On the other hand, the pause offers advantages to Hamas. Its leaders can move to new hiding places. Its militants can fortify their positions in southern Gaza before future fighting. And Hamas can hope that the pause leads the U.S. to push Israel to moderate its war aims. “To end the war now would leave Hamas still in charge of most of Gaza,” my colleague Patrick Kingsley has written.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll dig into both sides of the dilemma.
Reasons to pause
The scale of recent suffering in Gaza has led to intense criticism of Israel. Although the precise toll remains unclear — and the fairest comparisons remain a subject of dispute — analysts agree that many more Gazan civilians have died in the past seven weeks than did Israeli civilians in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. Many Gazan victims have been children (as this Times article by Raja Abdulrahim, with photos by Samar Abu Elouf and Yousef Masoud, shows).
In response, Saudi Arabia has pulled back from earlier diplomatic talks with Israel. U.N. officials have condemned Israel. In the U.S., many Democratic voters, especially those who are younger or more liberal, have grown uncomfortable with the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel.
The pause in the fighting, however, has also paused some of this diplomatic pressure on Israel. As part of the truce, Israel has allowed hundreds of trucks to enter Gaza carrying food, water and medicine. “The pause reinforces that Israel does not want civilians hurt and would like them to stock up on provisions,” David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me.
Perhaps most important to Israel’s leaders, the pause has already led Hamas to release 69 hostages, with 20 more scheduled to be released in the next two days. In exchange for each freed Israeli hostage, Israel has released three Palestinian prisoners. Before the truce, many Israelis had harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not doing more to win the hostages’ freedom.
After tomorrow’s scheduled releases, Hamas and its allies would still hold roughly 150 hostages, which could lead to a longer pause and further exchanges.
Some analysts even say that Israel should see the success of the pause as a reason to accept a lasting cease-fire.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., has argued that Israel should allow Hamas leaders to surrender and flee (much as the Palestine Liberation Organization members did in Beirut in 1982) in exchange for the return of all hostages. “The terrorists can sail off to Algeria, Libya or Iran,” Oren wrote in The Times of Israel. “Our captives will be united with their families.”
Tariq Kenney-Shawa — a fellow at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank — also says that resuming the war would be a mistake. He argues that eliminating a group with as much local support as Hamas has in Gaza is impossible. To do so, Israel would have to destroy the rest of Gaza, creating the next generation of insurgents. “There really is no military solution to this crisis,” Kenney-Shawa told me.
Reasons to fight
Still, Kenney-Shawa acknowledged that Hamas would consider a lasting cease-fire at this stage to be a victory. “And their allies in the region would chalk it up as a win,” he added.
Hamas would have made Israel look weak — by torturing and murdering its civilians, broadcasting the killings in gleeful online videos and vowing to repeat the attacks. Israel’s government, by contrast, would have failed in its promise to respond by capturing or killing Hamas’s leaders. Some of these leaders are likely now hiding in southern Gaza because of Israel’s success in invading northern Gaza.