Hamas and Israel have agreed to a four-day truce—to exchange hostages and bring in aid. Is this the first step toward a more permanent ceasefire—or just a brief respite in an ongoing humanitarian disaster?
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali
Ok, tell me about this four-day truce…
The deal is as follows:
- Hamas will release 50 women and children out of the 237 hostages abducted on October 7. It will not release any Israeli soldiers.
- In turn, Israel will release 150 Palestinian women and children from its prisons—being held without trial for crimes that range from attempted stabbings to hurling stones at Israeli soldiers.
- Humanitarian aid will finally be allowed into Gaza—but the details vary from one source to another. According to BBC News: 200 lorries carrying aid, four fuel tankers and four lorries carrying gas will be allowed in on each of the four days.
- Israeli tanks and troops will remain in position inside Gaza—but will not take any military action.
Point to note: Israel has indicated that it will extend the truce—adding a day for every 10 additional hostages released by Hamas. But it did not say anything about releasing more prisoners.
One real worry: The Israelis have pushed back the implementation of the deal to Friday—saying it is still working out “last-minute details” with Hamas. This suggests that the situation is still fluid.
Just a ‘pause’: PM Benjamin Netanyahu has made it very clear that this is not a ceasefire—and there will be no negotiations for peace in the interim:
“I want to be clear. The war is continuing. The war is continuing. We will continue it until we achieve all our goals,” Netanyahu said, adding he had delivered the same message in a phone call to U.S. President Joe Biden. He also said he had instructed the Mossad spy agency to hunt down Hamas’ exiled leadership “wherever they are.”
According to Israel, the war will not end until Hamas is totally destroyed. And Hamas, in turn, has warned: "Our fingers remain on the trigger, and our victorious fighters will remain on the look out to defend our people and defeat the occupation."
And how come we have this sudden deal?
It wasn’t all that sudden. There have been weeks of painful negotiations between the two sides—with the US and Qatar trying to orchestrate a deal. The first move was made by Qatar—which reached out to the White House—asking it to form a “small team of advisers” to help free the hostages. The Biden administration then set up a “secret cell” of aides—“without telling other relevant U.S. agencies because Qatar and Israel demanded extreme secrecy with only a few people to be in the know.”
Point to note: The negotiations suffered a number of setbacks. For example, it took a very long time for Hamas to produce the names, ages and other identifying information on the hostages—as proof of life. Netanyahu rejected a number of proposals for a hostage swap—even when the number was far higher than the 50 who will now be released:
According to three sources familiar with the talks, the original deal on the table involved freeing children, women and elderly and sick people in exchange for a five-day ceasefire, but the Israeli government turned this down and demonstrated its rejection with the launch of the ground offensive.
Why Israel agreed: Netanyahu initially took a tough line—rejecting all advice from the White House. Biden apparently made over 13 calls to Netanyahu—trying to persuade him to limit civilian casualties and agree to a humanitarian pause. None of it worked. In the end, Bibi gave into domestic pressure from families of hostages:
As the families became more and more organised and more agitated, they became more convinced that the Israeli government was avoiding doing the deal. Their slogan became “Deal Now!” These demands didn’t just exert pressure on Netanyahu’s government, but on him individually — calling into question his longtime framing of himself as Mr. Security, at a moment when he’s extremely politically vulnerable.
The military establishment is also under pressure to protect Israeli lives—i.e those of hostages—after having failed to do so on October 7.
Why Biden needed this: Washington has also played a prominent role—by leaning heavily on Netanyahu behind closed doors. Biden himself was under siege at home—as his popularity numbers tanked among Democratic voters furious at his handling of Gaza. And the Democratic leadership has been publicly divided over the unqualified support to Israel—not a good look in an election year.
Pressure from the Global South: The US and its Western allies find themselves increasingly isolated on the global arena. The Arab world is enraged by the staggering 13,300 death toll—which includes 5,600 children. The double standard applied to Palestine—versus Ukraine—has been repeatedly called out by the US’ Arab friends. Also a warning shot: a delegation of foreign ministers of Arab nations—led by Saudi Arabia—recently visited China to discuss a cease-fire.
Also BRICS: While the recent BRICS emergency meeting did not issue a joint declaration, the chair’s summary was notably harsh on Israel: “The chair’s summary—in essence a gist of the mood in the room—highlights growing calls from the Global South to end the war on the Gaza Strip.”
This quote from a former Western diplomat sums it up: “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South… Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.” Hence, Biden’s desperate scramble to show that he’s invested in saving Palestinian lives.
So will we get a ceasefire—or is it back to war?
Almost everyone except Israel is hoping to buy time needed to negotiate a ceasefire. As Biden wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed:
Our goal should not be simply to stop the war for today. It should be to end the war forever, break the cycle of unceasing violence, and build something stronger in Gaza and across the Middle East so that history does not keep repeating itself.
If Netanyahu returns to bombing Gaza with a vengeance, expect to see more cracks in their special relationship:
If the White House tries to use the hostage deal to press for a longer-term cease-fire and start moving toward the bigger questions about occupation and a two-state solution, that could put Mr. Biden on another collision course with Mr. Netanyahu when the fighting is scheduled to resume.
The big worry for Biden: is what happens over the next four days. Here’s one example of an unintended consequence of a pause:
And there was some concern in the administration about an unintended consequence of the pause: that it would allow journalists broader access to Gaza and the opportunity to further illuminate the devastation there and turn public opinion on Israel.
Also: the US is not convinced that Israel has a realistic long term goal. One expert close to the administration says the “White House remains ‘deeply, deeply worried’ about Israel’s longer-term strategy and what the next phase of the war may look like, making the next few days critical for the U.S. to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu to think through his approach.”
Point to note: There is some hope that a pause will break the “momentum” of war—making it hard to resume full-on hostilities. Once 50 hostages are released, there will be great pressure to negotiate to release the rest.
But, but, but: Pessimists say there is little or no reason for Netanyahu to stop now. The Israeli public may want the hostages back—but they also are unanimous in their desire to wipe out Hamas, irrespective of the Palestinian toll:
One November survey found that roughly 80% of Israelis approve of the Israel Defense Forces’s performance in Gaza; among Jews alone, that figure rises to 93%. As angry as Israelis are at their prime minister — and they are very, very angry — they agree on this.
The domestic incentive to go back to flattening Gaza will be tremendous—sooner or later. Of course, this is also why Hamas may hold on to the hostages as long as they can.
Key point to note: An end to the war that does not include an end to Hamas may be impossible for Tel Aviv to swallow. More so, since Hamas “will likely present the release of the prisoners—seen by most Palestinians as heroes resisting occupation—as a major achievement, and declare victory if the war ends.”
The bottomline: We all know that hostages must be returned to their families. We all know Israel needs to stop the bloodbath. But peace deals don’t happen because of moral pressure. Everyone needs a compelling—and entirely selfish reason to come to the table. That’s why we have a truce now. That’s why we may get a ceasefire tomorrow. But it doesn’t look promising.
Al Jazeera and Reuters have good guides to the deal. Politico is excellent in laying out the domestic pressures on Biden—while New York Times points to the increasing divide between Bibi and him. Vox explains why this truce will not become a ceasefire—because of the mood in Israel. Also in Al Jazeera: Why the pause could offer an advantage to a stretched Israeli military. The Nation has a good, detailed analysis of the truce from a progressive Arab point of view. TIME and The Guardian are best on the divide between the US and the Global South. Reuters has everything you need to know about the negotiations.