Israel refuses to take ‘yes’ for an answer

IssueJune - July 2024
The Jewish bloc on the Gaza ceasefire demo in London, 18 May. Photo: PN
News by Milan Rai

Hamas stunned the world by agreeing to an Israeli-US-Qatari-Egyptian ceasefire proposal on 6 May. Israel then refused to accept the ceasefire deal it had previously agreed – and immediately launched military attacks on Rafah in the south of Gaza, where over a million Palestinians had fled for safety from other, more devastated parts of the territory.

Earlier, on 30 April, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ‘said he would invade Rafah “with or without a deal,” a vow that Hamas predictably considered a deal-killer’, the New York Times noted.

Netanyahu’s promise to invade had seemed to doom the ceasefire talks, which included a swap of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

Yossi Verter, a columnist in the leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, commented that Netanyahu was ‘fleeing from a hostage deal’: ‘At least twice in recent months he has sabotaged the sensitive moves toward a deal, whether through public statements or covert messages, or by curbing the mandate of the negotiating team.’

Netanyahu’s ‘invade Rafah with or without a deal’ promise was a repeat performance, said Verter: ‘What was the point of these statements, before Hamas had even responded to the proposal, if not to thwart and sabotage.’

Israel had revived hopes for a ceasefire/hostage-swap deal when it made a new proposal on 27 April. Le Monde quoted an Arab diplomat: ‘We were all surprised.... All of a sudden, the Israelis were accepting what they had hitherto refused.’

“Netanyahu was desperately trying to avoid being charged with war crimes by the ICC”

One concession that the Israelis made, according to Le Monde, was to accept the idea of Palestinians returning to the north of the Gaza Strip.

A much more important concession was accepting diplomatic language put forward by US negotiators: committing to restoring ‘sustainable calm’.

Why did Israel suddenly start making concessions? There was increasing pressure from the US for a ceasefire, definitely.

Also, according to Haaretz, Netanyahu was desperately trying to avoid being charged with war crimes by the international criminal court (ICC). Netanyahu reportedly spent ‘dozens of hours’ in April and May meeting senior officials at the justice and defence ministries to discuss the threat of ICC arrest warrants.

Haaretz reported on 1 May that ‘Israeli officials admit’ that several changes in policy in relation to Gaza ‘are now directly connected to the government’s urgent efforts to fend off arrest warrants’. They included postponing the mass evacuation of civilians from Rafah and opening up aid supply lines into Gaza ‘after long months of obstruction’.

Another crucial change linked to the ICC was ‘the sudden willingness of Netanyahu to accept an Egyptian proposal for a hostage agreement that will include the restoration of freedom of movement in Gaza’.

We know that the Israeli prime minister also accepted the idea of working towards a ‘sustainable calm’ in a new ceasefire offer to Hamas that the US secretary of state Antony Blinken described as ‘extraordinarily generous’.

Was this a genuine offer? Jeremy Bowen of the BBC wrote on 7 May, after Hamas accepted and Israel backed away from this ‘generous’ offer: ‘Until Monday evening, Israel’s working assumption was that Hamas would not accept a ceasefire proposal.’

Yossi Verter had commented in Haaretz earlier, on 5 May: ‘Netanyahu had hoped that the Egyptian proposal, which was more far-reaching than anything he had been willing to accept in the past, would be rejected by Hamas. Over the weekend, when the negotiations took a positive turn, Netanyahu found himself in distress’ – which is when he made his ‘invade Rafah “with or without a deal”’ remarks.

Unsustainable calm

The day after Hamas accepted the Israeli-US-Qatari-Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu said his war cabinet believed that the proposal Hamas had agreed to was ‘very far from Israel’s core demands’.

In other words, according to Netanyahu, either the Egyptians or Hamas had drastically altered the text that Israel had signed up to, making Hamas’s agreement meaningless.

The New York Times reported: ‘The most substantive sticking point centers on a key phrase that appears in both the Israeli- and Hamas-approved proposals: a path to “sustainable calm.” In the proposal that Israel approved, and that Egypt conveyed to the Hamas leadership on April 26, the two sides would work toward achieving a “sustainable calm” in Gaza after an initial six-week pause in fighting. That proposal left those two words open to interpretation.’

The ambiguity was the whole point of ‘sustainable calm’, a phrase invented by US negotiators led by CIA director William Burns as an alternative to ‘permanent ceasefire’, which Israel would not accept.

“Not only were the changes to the deal small, they had been agreed with the US”

The Hamas-approved version of the text removed the ambiguity and defined a ‘return to sustainable calm’ as ‘a permanent cessation of military and hostile operations’, something that needed to happen in the second phase of the deal before the remaining Israeli male hostages could be swapped for an agreed number of Palestinian prisoners.

According to the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq, this is pretty much what Hamas had been promised by the US: ‘Hamas was guaranteed by the United States for a cease-fire and full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the third phase of the deal... and a promise that Israeli forces will not continue fighting after the release of the hostages.’

Only small changes

A New York Times headline sums up the initial US reaction to the Hamas-approved edit: ‘Officials Describe Pact Hamas Has Embraced as U.S.-Israel Proposal With Small Changes’.

Not only were the changes small, they had been agreed with the US.

The NYT was told by two US officials that ‘the changes were made by Arab mediators in consultation with William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director’, and that the new version had, crucially, kept ‘the eventual enactment of a “sustainable calm,” wording that all sides had said earlier they could accept’.

The two US officials ‘said the response from Hamas was a serious one, and that it was now up to Israel to decide whether to enter into an agreement.’

The day after Hamas accepted the (slightly-altered) ceasefire deal, ‘White House spokesman John F. Kirby said, “there should be no reason why they can’t overcome those remaining gaps,”’ the NYT reported. (There were also small differences over the numbers and types of hostages released in the first phase, timings and so on.)

It is true, as Netanyahu said, that what Hamas agreed to was ‘very far from Israel’s core demands’, but it’s also true that what Hamas agreed to was pretty much what Israel had signed up for – while believing that Hamas would never accept the offer.

Israel’s core demand was and is to be allowed to continue the destruction of Gaza until it is satisfied that Hamas has been smashed, however many civilians were killed and however many war crimes might be committed in the process.

‘The last couple of days have proved that Israel was not really negotiating in good faith. The moment that Hamas agreed to a deal, Israel was willing to blow that up by commencing their assault on Rafah,’ Omar Rahman, from the Middle East Council for Global Affairs in Qatar, told Al Jazeera on 7 May: ‘The goal is to destroy Gaza in its totality.’

Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab commented: ‘If a deal for a lasting ceasefire is not concluded, Israel will be exposed as the true spoiler of peace, and US as a dishonest broker.’

Hugh Lovatt, of the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera: ‘It appears that Israel is bypassing a ceasefire proposal that [CIA director] Will Burns worked on. This is a massive move against US diplomacy and I think the US needs to put its foot down.’

The US has not put its foot down. The British government, for its part, has not even taken the small step of suspending some arms supplies to Israel because of the assault of Rafah, something the US did in early May.