Australia/Israel Review


Editorial: A sustainable end to the war with Hamas

Dec 19, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein

Israeli soldiers standing next to the entrance to a tunnel in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabalia, on the outskirts of Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, December 8, 2023 (Image: Atef Safadi/EPA/AAP)
Israeli soldiers standing next to the entrance to a tunnel in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jabalia, on the outskirts of Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, December 8, 2023 (Image: Atef Safadi/EPA/AAP)

On December 12, Australia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister made a deliberate but very ill-advised decision to break ranks with the US, the UK, Germany and other Western allies and vote in favour of a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. 

Although the resolution includes a call for the release of all hostages Hamas is still holding in Gaza, it doesn’t make a ceasefire conditional on this. Indeed, Hamas is not even mentioned. It is thus much weaker than the formula that worked in the war’s previous multi-day temporary pause, when Hamas agreed to daily hostage releases in exchange for that pause, increased aid shipments and the release of some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. 

Moreover, this profoundly disappointing vote contradicted the positive policy goals for a “sustainable ceasefire” set out in an admittedly somewhat internally contradictory joint statement released by Australia, Canada and New Zealand the previous night – namely, release of all hostages, the end of the use of Gaza civilians as human shields, and Hamas being disarmed.

It should be obvious that the only way to achieve any such outcome is for the military pressure on Hamas to continue until that barbaric terror organisation is prepared to concede these terms. Voting in favour of an UNGA resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” – but making no call for Hamas to either lay down its arms or end its appalling practice of misusing Gaza civilians as human shields – amounted to effectively calling for an end to that military pressure on Hamas. If implemented, this resolution would make it less likely that the “sustainable ceasefire” Australia appropriately supports will ever be achieved. 

While everyone is concerned about the humanitarian situation of Gaza civilians and wants to see their plight ameliorated, the best way to end that suffering remains to bring the war to such a sustainable conclusion as rapidly as possible – meaning Hamas must be disarmed – even while stepping up efforts to bring humanitarian aid into Gaza, something Israel has promised to facilitate. 

The IDF is already routinely announcing humanitarian pauses of several hours at a time not dependent on Hamas concessions, as well as providing safe corridors for both evacuations and entry of aid convoys. It also recently opened the Kerem Shalom crossing and inspection point to speed up checking of aid trucks, and says any bottlenecks in bringing in aid have to do with aid agency limitations, not Israeli restrictions.

This is not to rule out humanitarian pauses like the one that occurred from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1, but by failing to condition the call for a humanitarian ceasefire on anything Hamas does, the UNGA resolution will likely encourage Hamas to harden its position and make reaching agreement on additional humanitarian pauses less likely.

Meanwhile, with Hamas looking increasingly on the ropes as Israeli forces systematically dismantle the organisation’s southern bastion of Khan Younis, with reports of hundreds of its fighters now surrendering, Hamas should absolutely not be given a lifeline. 

After all, there is documented evidence that Hamas has been stealing humanitarian aid, including diverting fuel to power generators for lighting and air circulation systems in its sprawling militarised tunnel system – estimated to span 500km – without which they would eventually become unusable. 

As implied by the three conditions Australia and its partners specified for a sustainable ceasefire, any outcome to the current conflict which leaves Hamas in control of Gaza and able to re-build its military capabilities guarantees two disastrous consequences. Firstly, war will soon resume, causing even more suffering to both the civilian residents of Gaza and Israelis – with Hamas having repeatedly expressed its determination to repeat the unprovoked massacre of October 7 “again and again”. And secondly, advancing the negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace that Australia has long supported will be completely impossible.

Hamas is of course completely rejectionist – with an unwavering commitment to the destruction of Israel “from the river to the sea” and eradication of Jews – and can never be part of any two-state peace deal. Indeed, with Iranian support, it will actively seek to violently torpedo any progress toward peace, as it has repeatedly done in the past, if it survives.

That’s why Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has laid out some red lines about what must happen in the immediate aftermath of the war against Hamas to ensure that October 7 can never be repeated. The international community, including Australia, should support outcomes that meet these red lines, because they are also essential to preserving any realistic hope for a two-state peace.

Representing the Israeli consensus, Netanyahu has ruled out Israel re-occupying Gaza long term but demands the IDF will have post-war freedom of action throughout Gaza to intervene to thwart terror attacks and prevent Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from rebuilding their military capabilities. 

Additionally, Netanyahu has ruled out IDF withdrawals from the areas it has cleared of Hamas infrastructure until an alternative administrative body can be found able to maintain stability there. He has strongly repudiated suggestions that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should constitute that body, at least for the time being – and for good reason. 

Most high-ranking PA figures have openly taken Hamas’ side since October 7, justifying that bloody pogrom under the rubric of “resistance” to occupation, reframing Israel’s defensive campaign aimed at Hamas as the collective targeting of all Palestinian people, and even spreading conspiracy theories that it was actually Israelis who committed the massacres of October 7 on their own people.

The PA is also so inept, corrupt and unpopular, it has effectively lost control over large sections of the West Bank. It simply is not currently capable of taking effective control of Gaza. 

There is also a lack of a clear successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who turned 88 in November and is in the 19th year of his four-year term. If the PA were put back in charge of Gaza now, this would simply invite another Hamas coup in the near future. 

The task for the world is thus two-fold – find forces, perhaps from Arab states like the UAE and Morocco, that can temporarily and reliably administer Gaza, while also simultaneously trying to reconstruct a pragmatic Palestinian leadership that possesses both the legitimacy and the willingness become a partner for pursuing a viable two-state peace. 

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