The Fighting Is Over but Underlying Causes Remain

A truce between Israel and Hamas fails to address core issues, including the siege on Gaza.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
People wave the Palestinian flag as they celebrate a cease-fire.
People wave the Palestinian flag as they celebrate a cease-fire brokered by Egypt between Israel and the two main Palestinian armed groups in Gaza City on May 21. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Egyptian intelligence officials are hoping to broker further understandings between Israel and Hamas after a cease-fire went into effect early Friday, but prospects for any long-term arrangement that would prevent further confrontations are unclear at best, with positions on both sides apparently hardening.

In Israel, opposition figures blasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what they described as a “shameful” capitulation and diplomatic “failure” in ending the fighting with no clear-cut outcome against the Hamas militant group.

In Gaza—and indeed across East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and even some Arab-Israeli towns—Palestinians took to the streets in celebration, honking car horns and chanting in support of the Islamist group.

After 11 days of open warfare, back-channel Egyptian efforts succeeded in securing an agreement by Israel and Hamas to mutually halt hostilities with no preconditions.

More than 240 Palestinians were killed, primarily via Israeli airstrikes, including 65 children, according to Gaza health authorities. The Israeli military maintains 200 militants are among the dead. Twelve Israelis were killed via rocket and missile attacks launched from Gaza into Israel, including two children, per local authorities.

Despite the lopsided death toll and scenes of devastation in Gaza, Hamas could claim significant political successes, according to analysts.

“Militarily, Hamas was defeated,” Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told Foreign Policy. “But they still have [political] achievements in terms of the position they secured in the Palestinian leadership, … and they were able to incite internal riots between Arabs and Jews inside Israel.”

Israeli officials have spent the past day highlighting a long list of military targets struck, militants killed, and miles of underground tunnels destroyed.

“We have achieved the objectives of the operation with extraordinary success … [and] caused maximum damage to Hamas with minimum loss on our side,” Netanyahu said on Friday, echoing statements Israeli leaders made after previous rounds of fighting with Hamas.

The true test for Israel, analysts said, was whether damage inflicted on Hamas would translate into a prolonged period of quiet—whether Israel has managed to deter Hamas sufficiently. “We don’t know how long it will hold,” Yadlin said.

Hamas’s military wing, as in all previous rounds, declared a great “victory for the resistance.” And indeed, orders circulating inside Gaza ahead of the cease-fire directed supporters to be “ready to go out with mass popular rallies … raising the banners of the movement and flags of Palestine and cheering” for television and smartphones to capture.

Political victories aside, it remains unclear what would happen to Gaza itself in terms of postwar reconstruction, humanitarian aid, and economic recovery.

In past confrontations with Israel, Hamas sought to ease the Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed on the Palestinian coastal enclave. Hamas, which much of the world designates a terrorist organization, has ruled Gaza since 2007.

Through indirect negotiations with Netanyahu in recent years, the Hamas regime in Gaza has secured Israel’s consent for monthly cash payments from Qatar (sent through Israeli territory), infrastructure improvements (plans for new electricity lines and natural gas pipelines), thousands of permits for Gaza residents to work again inside Israel, and even an independent commercial crossing with Egypt.

The arrangement allowed Gaza to receive much-needed economic relief, but it also left Hamas effectively unchecked to build up its forces. In return, all that was required was a guarantee of “quiet for quiet,” as Israeli officials termed it.

In the wake of this latest confrontation and Hamas’s improved military capabilities, Israeli officials—amid fierce domestic criticism—are now reconsidering their approach toward Gaza, often referred to in Hebrew as “the arrangement.”

As one Israeli minister close to Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 ahead of the cease-fire: “After this round, it wont be ‘quiet for quiet.’ It will be ‘force buildup will be met with death.’”

Balancing the real need for Gaza reconstruction against the fear of Hamas’s rearmament will not be easy, but as U.S. President Joe Biden made clear in a televised address on Thursday, it will be the dominant issue moving forward. If mishandled, fighting could easily erupt again.

“We remain committed to working with the United Nations and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people of Gaza and the Gaza reconstruction efforts,” Biden said. “We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority—not Hamas, the Authority—in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”

The problem, as most analysts quickly highlighted, is the Palestinian National Authority no longer controls Gaza—Hamas threw it out when it took over the territory 14 years ago. Multiple reconciliation efforts in the past between the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas have all failed, including a recent one that would have accompanied parliamentary elections. The vote was canceled late last month.

“Under [Palestinian National Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, I can’t see [the Palestinian National Authority] returning to Gaza. … It’s an unrealistic scenario,” a senior Israeli military officer told Foreign Policy.

Several international and Israeli officials indicated to Foreign Policy that a realistic mechanism for how this all could be achieved has yet to be formulated.

“In the near term, the priority is all about humanitarian relief and access,” one international source with knowledge of the situation told Foreign Policy. “With respect to rebuilding [Gaza] in the short to medium term, those conversations have started, but that doesn’t mean there’s a plan. … I expect long donor meetings.”

Tarrying on economic relief—or even just restricting Hamas’s traditional access to funds, cement, and other potential war-making materiel—could lead the militant group to resume attacks on Israel. Any renewed tensions in Jerusalem, the spark for this latest round of violence, could do the same.

“We have managed to create an equation linking the Jerusalem and Gaza fronts,” said Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh proudly last week amid the fighting.

Israel rejects any return to the status quo ante, with Netanyahu and other officials indicating “what was in the past won’t be in the future.”

“If Hamas thinks we will accept a drizzle of rockets [like in the past], they’re wrong,” Netanyahu threatened on Friday. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Hamas the “price of violating the quiet will be heavy. Extremely heavy.”

Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence, said the latest round of fighting certainly proved one thing: A new approach to the conflict is required.

“Israel will have to rethink its Palestinian policy,” Yadlin said, highlighting the need to bolster moderates like Abbas’ Palestinian National Authority at the expense of the militant Hamas.

“This mini-war in Gaza [showed] those Israelis who thought the Palestinian problem disappeared … that it’s still here.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber