The fragile pause in Israel’s onslaught against Hamas in Gaza, which has enabled the release so far of 58 hostages, has been surprisingly enduring given that neither side is in direct contact and each is bent on obliterating the other.
The question now is how long the intersection of interests that led to the deal will prevail, allowing the return of more of those abducted in the Hamas terror attacks in Israel and the entry into Gaza of more trucks of desperately needed aid.
While Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, a rush of developments in the Middle East led to emotional reunions among hostages and their families. But the plight of the majority still in captivity and that of Palestinian civilians underscored the brutal toll of the war. And with President Joe Biden back in Washington after his holiday weekend in Nantucket, Massachusetts, medium- and longer-term factors are coming into view that suggest the fighting could soon be raging again – and become even more intractable and costly.
Still, hopes are rising that after the agreed four-day span of releases, the deal will not end as scheduled on Monday. Hamas is pushing to enact a clause in the original arrangement that would see extra days of pauses in Israeli strikes in return for the freeing of each group of 10 hostages. The Israeli Cabinet has discussed the idea and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Biden in a call Sunday an extension would be welcome, his office said in a statement. And the US and Qatar – the two critical intermediaries in the deal – are seeking to use the momentum of the pause to create a foundation for a more permanent end to the fighting that could see more hostages freed and civilians shielded in Gaza.
In the short term, Israel and Hamas both appear to have strong reasons to continue the truce. Netanyahu, who has been under extreme pressure from the families of those held captive, may get a measure of political relief as more hostages come home. Hamas, meanwhile, has benefited from the halt in Israeli airstrikes and ground operations that is likely to enable it to regroup and prepare for an expected widened Israeli assault on its southern strongholds. The US is seeking the return of Americans held or unaccounted for after the Hamas raids on October 7, and Biden has a strong imperative in delaying or preventing more civilian carnage in Gaza – both for humanitarian reasons and to temper a domestic political backlash from young and progressive voters who have condemned his unshakable support for Israel.
And there’s pain far away from Gaza and Israel. A suspect was arrested in the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Vermont. Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday afternoon near the scene of the attack, the Burlington Police Department said in a news release. Police did not detail early Monday what charges he was facing. CNN has been unable to establish whether Eaton has a lawyer. The attack follows an upsurge of antisemitism that has also made American Jews feel less safe.
Why the Gaza pause may eventually unravel
An extended pause in the fighting would play into humanitarian aims, but time may be short before the strategic goals of Israel or Hamas shift. That means the fate of the remaining hostages – including a large group of young males and some members of the Israeli security forces – remains deeply uncertain.
The current situation, for instance, means that Hamas has regained the capacity to set the tempo of the conflict by using hostages as leverage to shape Israeli responses and military activity. The pause is complicating what Israel vows will be a drive to wipe out the Islamist movement. And the fate of remaining hostages balanced against the wider goals of the Israeli military will increasingly pose a stark moral dilemma for Netanyahu’s government.
The time may also be approaching when the lopsided nature of the exchanges – three Palestinians released from Israeli prisons in exchange for each hostage – may become politically unsustainable for Netanyahu, whose reeling government relies on a coalition of hawkish far-right parties. As the numbers of its hostages slowly dwindles, Hamas may eventually lose the incentive to free large groups as it seeks to retain leverage.
One uncertainty from the US perspective is how much pressure Biden, who spoke again to Netanyahu on Sunday, will impose on the Israelis to continue the pause as long as is possible. But, if the pause ends, would US support for Israel’s right to target Hamas be just as strong as it was before the truce? The delicate US-Israel dynamic explains why it makes sense for Hamas to hold onto some American hostages in the hope of forcing Biden to constrain Israel. “If they keep holding American hostages, that will keep the US focused on this and keep the US keeping pressure on the Israelis,” retired US Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told CNN on Sunday. A return to battle might also weaken Israel’s already shaky international backing.
Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan encapsulated the balancing act the president would face in such circumstances without indicating exactly how he would respond. “President Biden believes any country, including Israel, has a right and responsibility to defend itself against that kind of enemy,” Sullivan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “He also believes that any military operations have to be conducted in a way that protects civilians, that distinguishes terrorists from civilians, and that ensures that those civilians have safe places to be and access to lifesaving humanitarian aid.”
While strategic choices ahead are acute, the releases of hostages so far – and the more than 100 trucks of humanitarian aid that have entered Gaza – have represented a rare moment of hope and relief in a horrendous conflict. Among those released on Sunday was 4-year-old Abigail Edan, who was the youngest American held and the first US citizen freed since the start of the truce. Biden spoke with the family of the girl, whose parents were both murdered on October 7, and told Americans that though she was safe, she’d been through “a terrible trauma.” Biden’s address was a welcome break in a crisis that has caused him considerable political damage. But beset by low approval ratings and political attacks from all sides as he seeks reelection, the president faces a perilous road ahead – especially if the fighting resumes in Gaza.
Biden has faced sharp criticism from inside the Democratic Party over his refusal to call for a permanent ceasefire in a war that has revealed splits in his electoral coalition. Younger, progressive voters – whose turnout is key for Biden next year – have been critical of Israel’s response to the terror attack, while anger is also growing among Arab Americans, who are key to the Democrats’ hopes in the swing state of Michigan.
But the president is also attracting critiques from the right. While GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie said the president deserved some credit for brokering the deal, he told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” that he was concerned Biden was leaning too strongly on Netanyahu.
Christie warned that Biden was starting to wrongly “err” into saying that he hopes the truce continues. “He can’t be doing that kind of stuff, in my view, publicly,” the former New Jersey governor said. “His voice has to be just purely supportive of what Israel is doing to try to protect its territorial integrity and the safety and security of its 9 million citizens.”
US aid package for Israel may be delayed until next year
Biden has been calling for weeks for Congress to pass $14.3 billion in emergency aid for Israel. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told his Democratic colleagues in a letter Sunday that he’ll bring to the floor a national security package that ties together Israel and Ukraine funding as soon as next week. But such a measure would still face tough challenges in the GOP-controlled House.
House Republicans did pass their own measure but, in a political stunt, attached cuts to Internal Revenue Service funding that they knew were unacceptable to Democrats, who run the Senate. Pro-Donald Trump Republicans, meanwhile, oppose efforts from some Democrats and Senate Republicans to twin the measure with a new $60 billion aid package for Ukraine. And any package is in jeopardy because of the narrow House GOP majority, which is effectively controlled by hardliners. That means the only way Republicans would be likely to vote for a measure is if it includes Democratic concessions on the southern border.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday he’s not optimistic the measure will pass this year. “I think it’d be very difficult to get it done by the end of the year. And the impediment currently is the White House policy on the southern border,” the Ohio Republican said.
In another sign that differences over the package could lead to further delays, Sen. Chris Murphy said he’d be open to conditioning Israeli aid on the protection of Palestinian civilians. “We regularly condition our aid to allies based upon compliance with US law and international law,” the Connecticut Democrat said on “State of the Union.” “And so I think it’s very consistent with the ways in which we have dispensed aid, especially during wartime, to allies.”
The political strategizing taking place in Israel, the United States and beyond has not begun to consider what the region might look like after the war. The Biden administration is reiterating support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that looks more distant than ever after the October 7 attacks. And Israeli President Isaac Herzog told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview Sunday that he supported the idea for an “international coalition” to monitor Gaza after Hamas had been eradicated in the war.
But that is all in the far distant. For now, the key question is how long the war will be paused and whether hostages will keep being sent to freedom and safety.