As the Israel-Hamas war nears the two-month mark, there have been some positive developments. Israel, which initially rejected any sort of deal with Hamas for the release of around 250 Israeli hostages, has now agreed to release several hundred Palestinian detainees (many of them women and children) held in its prisons in exchange for the former.
In fact, Hamas released around 25 hostages, including 12 Thai nationals, on the first day of a proposed four-day truce agreed upon by both sides with the intervention of Qatar and the US, which played a behind-the-scenes role. Israel, in turn, released 39 Palestinian prisoners who have languished for years in Israeli jails without being charged. There were scenes of jubilation in Israel and the Israel-occupied West Bank over the swap.
Israel has been on a knife’s edge since October 7, when Hamas militants infiltrated the heavily guarded Gaza-Israel border and massacred around 1,400 Israelis, the majority of them civilians.
They also took around 250 hostages, both civilians and Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) personnel, back to Gaza as they retreated. Israelis were stunned to learn that the IDF, Mossad (the international spy agency of Israel) and the Shin Bet (the domestic intelligence and security Police) had not only failed to get any prior warning over the horrendous attack but also miserably failed to thwart the Hamas attackers from breaching the heavily fortified defences.
Moreover, even the “impenetrable” Iron Dome Missile Defence System failed to deliver as it crumpled under a barrage of thousands of crude missiles and rockets sent from Gaza by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the other major militant group operating in the besieged Gaza Strip.
While the entire world sympathised with Israel over the events of October 7, Israel’s image received a battering over the next few days and weeks as it launched a disproportionate response targeting schools, hospitals, ordinary homes and even ambulance convoys in the Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million Palestinians.
The word “genocide” has been used by many world leaders as Israel practically pulverised the tiny enclave (half the size of Singapore), killing more than 13,000 people including around 5,000 children. Israel could not convince much of the world that the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza was the headquarters of Hamas, as evidence to that effect was rather flimsy.
Even the US, the most staunch backer of Israel, called for restraint on the part of Israel and chose not to veto a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution calling on both sides to declare a ceasefire.
US President Joe Biden also warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu not to think of permanently occupying Gaza, saying that Israel must be committed to an eventual two-State solution.
Just a few days into the War, Netanyahu has promised just that – a permanent occupation of Gaza. For Netanyahu, whose popularity had plummeted to new lows before the war due to his plans for judicial reform and corruption allegations, the war could be a way to earn the top spot at the next polls and even more significantly, to stay out of jail.
But this looks increasingly unlikely as most Israelis hold him responsible for the security debacle of October 7. After all, he is also accused of nurturing Hamas to counter the other groups operating in the region.
Thus his change of heart regarding a truce could be an indirect admission that a completely military solution would not be feasible in the end.
Several Israeli politicians and military experts have warned that the very existence of Israel could be threatened if that avenue is pursued in the long term. Indeed, it is better for Israel to co-exist with its Arab neighbours, give up its policy of annexation and expansion of Jewish settlements and end its policy of apartheid vis-à-vis Palestinians in Israel itself, Gaza, West Bank and the Golan Heights.
The current truce, however fragile it may be, offers a glimmer of hope for a permanent solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
One must not forget that Palestinians have suffered for more than 70 years under Israeli occupation, ever since the State of Israel was carved out of mostly Palestinian lands in 1948. It is time for a rethink on this “suffocating occupation” as UN Chief Antonio Guterres described it much to the chagrin of Israel.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and other shadowy Palestinian groups and the Arab countries giving them moral support must also rethink their stance at this stage.
A long-drawn out conflict will not do anyone any good, as the human toll on both sides in the last few weeks alone has demonstrated in ample measure. The US, as the closest ally of Israel, must take the lead in the peace effort, with the active participation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, West Bank.
There is still time and scope to make both slogans a reality – “Never Again” (Israel) and “From the River to the Sea” (Palestine).
A viable, permanent two-State solution is the only way out of the present imbroglio. Living in peace is always better than living in fear.