As the exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners continues in the backdrop of an extended truce, it is time to consider what Hamas has achieved by triggering the present conflict. It could have carried out the exchange much earlier and saved the lives of more than 14,000 Gaza residents, including some 4,500 children. It greatly miscalculated Israel’s response expecting that nation to follow international conventions which it did not, itself, respect. What follows next also cannot be predicted because Israel is fighting an existential battle.
Although it may not have been intended by Hamas, but the conflict is expected to undo the developing relations between Israel and a clutch of Arab nations. This may or may not prove to be true because the imperatives remain the same, whatever public position the Arab governments may hold. Hamas, in the regional context, is not an independent entity and obtains support and inspiration from Iran, whose world-view is contrary to nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This reflects the great divide between the US affiliated forces and those allied, perforce, with Russia and China. It must not be forgotten that Israel has fended off criticism and opposition from a large number of nations because of the unstinting support provided by the US. In fact, the present conflagration has not become a larger conflict largely because of the speedy deployment of US naval forces in the region.
Experts across the board are of the opinion that the only force that can pressure Israel to exercise restraint in the longer term is the US. What US President Biden has stated in recent days indicates that this is exactly what is being done. If the prisoner exchange is completed fully, there is space for Israel to suspend hostilities for a longer time. Although it would like very much to defang Hamas in Gaza, it may be hesitant to take responsibility for the area’s governance. The Israeli government and people are deeply divided on the issue.
A solution could be handing over control of Gaza to a UN peace-keeping force for the time-being. It is possible that Hamas might be persuaded to accept that. This could be followed after a couple of years of normalisation and reconstruction with genuine elections. Hopefully, a more moderate government would emerge and, with the help of international forces, be able to keep out the influence of Hamas. That seems a tall order but what is the alternative?