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Ramadan and the Israel-Hamas ceasefire negotiations

Mar 8, 2024 | Ahron Shapiro

Crowds gather for prayer at Jerusalem's Temple mount (Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)
Crowds gather for prayer at Jerusalem's Temple mount (Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on March 10 – this coming Sunday. Ramadan’s start had become a self-imposed deadline of sorts – suggested by both the Biden Administration and Israeli leaders – for another indirectly negotiated temporary ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas. However, a deal before Ramadan starts now looks extremely unlikely – and there is good reason to believe Hamas never wanted anything of the sort.

Leaked reports of the outlines of current deal proposals suggest a deal much more favourable to Hamas than the only other temporary ceasefire in the war so far, agreed to in late November 2023. That saw Hamas release 105 hostages in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian security prisoners – most of them women and minors – and approximately a week of ceasefire. It ended when Hamas stopped providing hostages to be released and instead launched rocket barrages on Israel.

According to a top Biden Administration official at a March 7 press briefing under the auspices of the National Security Council:

So, first of all, it is a three-phase deal — that’s the concept of the deal — with the first phase being a six-week ceasefire… And there are arrangements — as we had even during the ceasefire deal in November that led to 105 hostages coming out over seven days, repositioning of Israeli forces during that period, arrangements for movement — all of that stuff has been negotiated… [and] yes, we’re returning people to the north; that is part of the arrangement.

Yet even with all these concessions in hand, Hamas walked away from negotiations in Cairo some hours after that White House briefing, saying talks would only resume next week, the Voice of America reported.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Hamas continues to harden its positions:

Egyptian officials said [Gaza’s Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar hopes that friction between Washington and Israel could allow him to cut a deal more favorable to Hamas and is pushing for including a permanent cease-fire and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

 

Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas: Ramadan is the month for holy war 

Meanwhile, Hamas has all along been signalling that it sees no urgency for a Ramadan truce, and may indeed see Ramadan as signifying intensified war, not a time for arrangements to facilitate peaceful worship.

Jerusalem Post analyst Seth Frantzman noted on March 3 that the Iranian proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has called on Ramadan to be a “month of terror” and of uniting of fronts against Israel – a reference not only to Hamas, but also the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis of Yemen and sympathisers in the West Bank and elsewhere. This followed a similar call on February 28 by the Qatar-based Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh for the “Axis of Resistance” to escalate attacks on Israel during Ramadan.

Meanwhile, the Arabic media monitoring organisation MEMRI published a report on March 1 that referenced back to its previous documentation on the subject and offered a historical overview, while making the perceptive observation that the widespread expectation that Israel should stop fighting during Ramadan ignores the fact that the jihadists have no such expectation on themselves. In fact, quite the opposite:

Against the backdrop of the demand that Israel stop the fighting in Gaza during Ramadan (which will begin in mid-March) because it is a sacred month of fasting, it is pertinent to recall that the jihad organizations regard Ramadan not only a month of abstention and worship but also as the month of jihad and martyrdom…

This religious perception is reflected in sermons and statements by prominent Islamic religious leaders, who stress that Ramadan is the month of jihad, conquest, and victory in Islam, and is also found in schoolbooks for children. It is also reflected in increased military activity by the jihadi and terrorist Islamic movements around the world.

 

Israel facilitates Ramadan worship in Jerusalem, despite past provocations

As hostage negotiations continue off and on, and Hamas continues to cling to unreasonably high demands that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called “non-starters”, it’s worthwhile to note that Israel has historically made overtures and gestures to Muslims during Ramadan.

This may not seem surprising when you consider that 20% of Israel’s citizens are Muslim, but Israel has also made similar gestures to Muslim Palestinians as well, and always facilitated Palestinian access to the Al Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, sometimes with restrictions on age groups statistically more likely to be involved in provocative and violent activity.

This year, despite the current war, and despite angry opposition from far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel has decided it will not impose new restrictions on access to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslim Arab citizens of Israel during Ramadan, and will also allow in West Bank worshippers, though in somewhat lesser numbers than last year.

Meanwhile, as noted above, jihadist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have consistently relied on Islamic interpretations and commentaries that Ramadan is actually an auspicious time for waging holy wars and often exploited Israel’s leniency to plan violent riots on the Temple Mount, sometimes precipitating wider escalations.

Just last year, as the Times of Israel reported at the time, Israel allowed “women of all ages, children up to the age of 12, and men above the age of 55 from the West Bank… to enter Israel to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Fridays without an existing entry permit.” It also allowed some Gazans free passage to pray in Jerusalem as well. That wasn’t all – Israel also allowed West Bank Palestinians to travel abroad using Ramon International Airport in the Negev, instead of having to go via Amman.

Palestinians took advantage of Israel’s leniency to agitate, smuggle rocks, small explosives and other weapons into the Al Aqsa Mosque, and initiate violent riots.

The Palestinian violence was pretty much an encore of their riots of 2022. An Israeli police statement at the time read: “While many police officers are working to allow freedom of worship and maintain security, law, and order at holy places and throughout Jerusalem, there are some who opt to riot and disturb the peace. We will continue to take strong steps against those who disturb the peace, for the peace and safety of the public.”

It’s worth mentioning that the 2022 riots took place even as the Israeli government coalition at the time included the Islamist Ra’am party, which refused to bring down the government over it in defiance of extremist hopes, but did make a symbolic gesture of temporarily suspending its participation in the government.

The year 2021, it should be remembered was particularly bad in terms of Palestinian violence over Ramadan, particularly towards the end of the holiday. That year, Hamas launched a mini-war, known in Israel as Operation Guardian of the Walls, which even succeeded in touching off riots in mixed Jewish and Arab towns inside Israel predominantly impacting against Jewish targets.

In recent years, Palestinian terrorists have also exploited expanded access to Israel during Ramadan to launch murderous attacks, sometimes successfully.

 

A Ramadan Offensive into Rafah?

Meanwhile, many media outlets have reported, usually with a sense of foreboding and alarm, that Israel has said it will begin an offensive on Hamas in Rafah, Gaza’s last major city under Hamas control, starting March 10.

As the Voice of America’s March 7 report explained to its audience, “Ramadan was put forward as an informal deadline for completion of the talks because violence linked to access to a major Jerusalem holy site often erupts during the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting.”

It’s true that Israeli War Cabinet member Benny Gantz did suggest such an ultimatum in a speech (notably made in English only) on February 18. However, it was never established whether he had Israeli government approval to announce this deadline, nor has it been repeated. We know that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu neither publicly uttered it himself nor endorsed it. And most media reports entirely omitted that Gantz clearly conditioned such an offensive on the evacuation of civilians beforehand – which isn’t happening, meaning there is no sign Israel is preparing for major ground operations into Rafah at the moment.

For the sake of context, I’ll quote the Times of Israel’s report on Gantz’s threat, for what it was, here:

If hostages held in Gaza are not freed within the next few weeks, Israel will broaden its offensive in southern Gaza and push into the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned…

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know — if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area,” Gantz said…

“We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimize civilian casualties,” the former IDF chief of staff and defense minister told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as they convened in Jerusalem.

“To those saying the price [of an offensive] is too high, I say this very clearly: Hamas has a choice — they can surrender, release the hostages, and the citizens of Gaza will be able to celebrate the holy holiday of Ramadan,” he said.

In any event, Gantz’s efforts to ramp up the pressure for a pre-Ramadan deal didn’t last very long. On February 27, US President Joe Biden said in an interview that the US had gotten Israel to agree to not launch any offensive during the entire month of Ramadan at all, in the interests of giving hostage negotiations more time.

PM Netanyahu said in a speech at an IDF ceremony on March 7 that the Israeli military in the meantime, “will operate against Hamas all through the Gaza Strip, ‘including Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold,’ near the border with Egypt. ‘Whoever tells us not to act in Rafah is telling us to lose the war, and that will not happen,’” the VOA reported.

But Netanyahu’s remarks did not imply any increase in the intensity of Israeli attacks in Rafah during Ramadan. The IDF, it should be noted, has already been making targeted strikes in and around Rafah.

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