The TLDR: Just as Israel looked ready to dig in, its cabinet approved an unconditional ceasefire—and hostilities came to an immediate end… for now. We previously did a long explainer offering context and reasons for this conflict—which we recommend checking out. Here we offer a shorter overview of the ceasefire, the likely reasons, and whether it will hold.
Tell me about the ceasefire
The truce was mediated by Egypt, and took effect at 2 am local time. On Thursday evening, the Israeli cabinet unanimously approved the Egyptian proposal for a “mutual and unconditional” ceasefire. Both sides claimed victory, as expected. Hamas claimed that Israel had agreed to “remove its hand from Sheikh Jarrah and al-Aqsa”—which Israeli officials flatly denied. The Israeli government boasted of “significant achievements in the [military] operation, some of which are unprecedented.”
But, but, but: Both sides also kept the door open for resumed hostilities. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said, “The reality on the ground will determine how we move forward,” adding that “the defense establishment continues its readiness to protect Israeli citizens.” Hamas, meanwhile, vowed to fire rockets at Israel if it violates the deal—hence signalling it still has the arsenal to continue fighting.
“Cease-fires during previous wars in Gaza have proved fragile. Truces lasting just a matter of days were broken in the last round of significant fighting in 2014, as each side blamed the other for renewed rocket attacks and airstrikes. In one instance, following the collapse of a weeklong cease-fire, Israel launched an airstrike against the head of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, killing his wife and children but failing to kill him. The conflict lasted another week.”
OTOH, even when fragile, ceasefires offer a valuable lull in the violence—offering space to negotiate a more lasting agreement, and allowing people to return to their homes in Gaza.
The damage to note: The truce has been reached after 11 days of relentless airstrikes—though Gaza has paid the far greater price. As of today, at least 230 Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children and 39 women, and 1,710 wounded. Another 58,000 have been forced to flee their homes—that’s out of a population of 2 million. Also this:
“[T]he Israeli military has conducted over 1,450 airstrikes on the Gaza Strip since last week… and have destroyed more than 1,000 houses and apartments as well as dozens of government buildings, schools, hospitals and businesses.”
At least 50 schools have been damaged—disrupting education for 42,000 children. Also running low: food, electricity and drinking water. In other words, simply ending the violence will do little to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Israel’s death toll:12, while 348 have been injured. The reason: Israel’s Iron Dome system blocked over 90% of the 4000 rockets launched by Hamas. Gaza, however, does not have any air raid warning system—leave alone air defense capabilities.
Why the sudden U-turn?
One: International pressure. Israel had been urged by almost every nation to bring an immediate halt to the airstrikes. And protests were held across the globe in support of the people of Gaza. This time, the Palestinians received unprecedented popular support within the United States—where many demanded an immediate suspension of military aid to Israel. Not helping: Israel’s decision to bomb a building where Associated Press and other media offices were located—which proved to be a diplomatic disaster. There were also multiple resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire circulated at the UN Security Council—the latest introduced by France.
Two: US pressure. The US blocked all the Security Council resolutions, but made clear to PM Netanyahu that he needs to stop before international support runs out. In a significant phone call to Netanyahu on Wednesday, President Biden said he expected "significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire." An unnamed source told Axios, Biden was "firm" on the call and sent a clear message that he's "done kidding around and Israel needs to finish it."
And in a follow up call between the Israeli foreign minister and US Defense Secretary, the latter again underlined the message:
“In their call, [Anthony] Blinken told [Gabi] Ashkenazi the U.S. was blocking a French initiative at the UN Security Council on Gaza but cannot keep backing Israel publicly and diplomatically, mainly at the UN, for much longer.”
Three: While it may possess the far mightier force, this bloody stalemate was inevitable for military reasons. As The Conversation points out:
“Israel’s problem in Gaza is that it cannot prevent the rockets being fired without a military ground force intervention. However, the last time it sent in troops, during ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in July 2014, they came up against determined paramilitaries who knew the urban areas intimately and had long trained in urban guerrilla warfare.
Over the course of that 2014 conflict, the Israelis lost 68 troops, while several hundreds were left wounded, some maimed for life. Yet, when a ceasefire was eventually agreed, IDF sources accepted that Hamas still had 3,000 rockets available…”
Also this: Israel has zero interest in taking over Gaza—which is more of a headache that it can handle. So any military operation has to be limited in its objective—in this case, described as “mowing the grass,” i.e paring down Hamas’ military arsenal and infrastructure.
The bottomline: The only winner in this conflict—for now—is Biden who is claiming credit for the ceasefire. The rest remains the same. Hamas is still in control of Gaza, and Israel will continue to cut it off from the rest of the world. What is interesting and new: the US pledge to send billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza—but only if Hamas gives up use of its rockets. We don’t know what either Israel or Hamas will make of that.