Any protracted conflict can come to an end under certain circumstances that either evolve over a period of time or are precipitated by one side or the other of the conflicting parties, including: when both sides conclude they can no longer benefit from the continuation of the conflict; when both sides reach a point of exhaustion as they no longer have the resources nor the tenacity to continue the fight; when outside major power(s) impose a solution; when either side makes a unilateral significant concession that changes the dynamic of the conflict; and when the public rises en masse and engages continuously in civil disobedience or in violent protest to compel their government to find a solution.
None of the above scenarios seem applicable to the Israeli-Hamas conflict. The most likely scenario is the precipitation of a major violent explosion—a fourth war that Hamas may well invite out of desperation, in which case it will be prepared to suffer thousands of casualties and massive destruction. Hamas will categorically refuse to settle on another ceasefire and restore the status quo ante. Instead, it will insist that Israel lift the blockade under a mutually agreed upon formula.
As Hamas sees it, sustaining such losses, however colossal they may be, will pale in comparison to the unending despair and desolation the Palestinians are suffering in Gaza from the continuation of the blockade.
Regardless of its bellicosity and extremism against Israel, Hamas is seen by the international community as the underdog. The severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza today is of mammoth proportions, making it impossible for Israel to wage another war against Hamas with the hope of simply reaching another tenuous ceasefire only to go back and ‘mow the lawn’ again and again without introducing a dramatic change on the ground. A fourth victory for Israel against Hamas is nothing but self-defeating as it will only further undermine Israel’s image by making the conditions in Gaza even worse, which plays into Hamas’ hand.
The current situation in Gaza is simply unsustainable because hopelessness and misery among the Palestinians breeds resentment and hatred, which in turn breeds violent resistance. This is a vicious cycle, and there is nothing that Israel can do now or in the future to end the conflict regardless of how much force it employs, as long as the blockade remain in place.
Times have changed; Israel can no longer maintain even relative calm in Gaza because Hamas has little left to lose and will keep the conflict simmering. Hamas has learned from the repeated mistakes of its previous three wars and will not settle for anything less than a long-term solution. Hamas knows that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want another war at a time when Israel is preoccupied with other pressing regional issues it must face.
For Netanyahu, the growing importance of the strategic collaboration between Israel and the Arab states to face Iran, Israel’s concerns over Iran’s presence in Syria, and the prospect of the resumption of Iran’s nuclear weapons program must assume top priority. This is coupled with Trump’s pending peace plans, which Netanyahu does not want to disrupt because he wants to avoid the impression that he is the obstructionist rather than PA President Abbas.
Any Israeli government understands that Hamas is not going anywhere. Israel can invade Gaza and decapitate Hamas’ leadership, but within a short period of time new leaders will rise to power who will even be more extremist, vengeful, and uncompromising.
Furthermore, Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza. The reoccupation of the Strip would be nothing short of a security nightmare for Israel, not to speak of the monthly hundreds of millions of dollars required to maintain a huge military force to keep order and security, and to care for nearly two million people.
Gaza is separate from the West Bank, and given the far more complex conflicting issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Netanyahu government should now focus on addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza first. Hamas and the PA do not see eye-to-eye, and for Hamas, easing the dire conditions in Gaza are far more urgent and it will seize any opportunity to negotiate as long as it is not humiliated in the process.
All past ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas were conducted by a third party. Due to its proximity to Gaza, its security concerns, and being at peace with Israel, Egypt played a pivotal role in mediating between Israel and Hamas in the past. At this juncture, however, Israel and Hamas should negotiate directly, with Egyptian participation.
Face-to-face negotiations between Israel and Hamas will not only reveal the human dimension of both sides—fear, anguish, and concerns—but would also demonstrate if they are truly committed to reaching an agreement. Face-to-face talks also spark new ideas and possibilities that direct negotiations tend to stimulate. Additionally, direct talks foster a relationship that facilitates agreements on various difficult issues and helps nurture trust, the lack of which has been haunting both sides.
To set the stage, direct negotiations should be preceded by backchannel contacts between the two sides facilitated by a third party. The secret nature of backchannel talks conducted by top respected and trusted individuals from both sides would allow them to air their grievances and concerns without constraints, gauge the extent of the concessions they are prepared to make, and establish the prerequisites required to set the stage for face-to-face talks without public scrutiny.
If Israel wants to reach an agreement, it must drop its demand that Hamas should first surrender its cache of weapons before Israel lifts the blockade. The demilitarization of Gaza must be a part of the negotiating process based on quid pro quo, where a gradual destruction of Hamas’ weapons is reciprocated by easing the blockade. What is necessary, however, is that Hamas first agree to renounce violence and cease all hostilities.
Israel should embrace Hamas’ proposal of a long-term ceasefire (hudna). Contrary to the Israeli position, a hudna would not simply provide Hamas time to prepare for the next war because it is bent on Israel’s destruction. Instead, a hudna would provide both sides the opportunity to engage in a process of reconciliation, allow Hamas to reap immediate and continuing benefits, and develop a vested interest in maintaining peace.
During this period of time, Hamas should focus on the rehabilitation of Gaza by building schools, health clinics, and infrastructure while establishing the foundation and institutions of a viable ‘state’ as if it were independent to demonstrate its commitment to peace, instead of building attack tunnels and procuring weapons.
Israel would gradually ease the blockade and eventually lift it altogether, as long as Hamas is in full compliance with all the provisions of the agreement. This would lead over three to five years to a permanent structure of peace, where all other conflicting issues would be negotiated and settled under conditions of greater confidence and trust.
Those who suggest that Hamas is irredeemable, as many Israelis contend, are simply wrong. Notwithstanding their public statements to the contrary, Hamas knows that Israel is here to stay, it cannot be defeated now or at any time in the future, and a solution to their conflict can be found only through negotiation.
This is not a pipedream. Indeed, from every angle the Israel-Hamas conflict is examined, neither has any other choice but to come to terms with each other’s reality and reconcile their differences. The longer they wait, the deeper and more intractable the conflict becomes, and the higher the cost in blood and destruction.
It is time for Israel and Hamas to test each other’s resolve through direct talks and hammer out a peaceful solution, which remains the only viable option.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.