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23 January 2024

The slipperiness of ceasefire

Why the path to peace is shorter in Gaza than Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 7 November 2023. On 22 January 2024 , Israel proposed a two-month pause in fighting. This is part of a multi-phase deal that would include the release of all hostages. The proposal does not include an agreement to end the conflict, but this would be the longest ceasefire since the start of the war. 

In war, violence is instrumental. It is a means to an end. This allows war a semblance of rationality, and means we can ask how violence achieves its intended objectives. This rationality, however, can also be clouded by deep emotion, a response to the horror and despair that accompanies persistent violence or else the sacrifices accepted in the name of a great cause.

Violence means that peaceful means have already failed to resolve whatever was in dispute, and the extra emotional charge makes resolution even harder. Once a full-scale war is under way the inclination is to insist it can only stop when the other side concedes defeat. That point may never be reached, even as the violence exhausts and depletes each side, and the war continues because of the fear of losing as much as the hope of gain.

That’s when other countries might intervene – they may be suffering the secondary effects of war because of refugee flows or disrupted economies, or fear the war’s spread. They might press for at least a ceasefire, for some temporary relief, or at best a political settlement that resolves the dispute.

Consider the two wars that currently dominate the headlines. In the past Russia and Ukraine negotiated without lasting success. Hamas and Israel spoke through intermediaries, with outcomes that were always fragile, leaving legacies of antagonism and distrust. Combine intense fighting with inherited mistrust and direct negotiations appear futile. In both cases it seems hard enough getting a ceasefire, never mind a comprehensive peace settlement. For both sides in a ceasefire, key objectives need to not be abandoned; there is always the possibility of returning to the fight.

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In the case of Ukraine’s war against Russia, which is more than 20 months old, Western countries are loath to impose a peace on Kyiv. To do so on Moscow’s terms would be to reward its original aggression. By contrast, with the Hamas-Israel War, the outside parties will play a large role in determining when and how this latest bout of violence ends. Israel is acting in self-defence but it fights in a way that causes grievous harm to the Palestinian population, meaning it is coming under pressure to reduce drastically the violence. In addition, Israel cannot resolve the conflict by itself. Whatever is achieved militarily it will be unable to dictate a political settlement. For this it needs international support and will require its own concessions. As I have tried to argue from the first days of the war in Gaza, it is possible to imagine a postwar settlement, with neither Hamas nor Israel in charge. The challenge lies in creating the conditions, including a ceasefire, that would make it possible to implement.

[See also: Gershon Baskin: “There’s only one way to bring all the hostages back alive”]

Hamas-Israel

Israel’s objectives are to remove Hamas from power in Gaza and dismantle its military infrastructure. This set the objectives for Hamas. It needs to survive with some military capacity left intact.

Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has stated that he would engage in “political negotiations for a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine” once there is a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors are opened up. He is however in no position to set the agenda for any talks. Israelis also draw attention to an interview given by Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, in which he described Israel as a “country that has no place on our land”, which must be removed “because it constitutes a security, military and political catastrophe to the Arab and Islamic nation. We are not ashamed to say this.” The Al-Aqsa Deluge, the name given to its 7 October attack on southern Israel, was “just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth… Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”

This is why Israel wants to make Hamas’s current position in Gaza untenable. Yet a military victory could never be complete. Hamas and its junior Islamist partner, Islamic Jihad, have deep roots in the territory and will be able to regenerate. Israel lacks the capacity or the inclination to occupy all of Gaza. Some figures on the margins of the government may wish to force the whole population into Egypt, but that is not a serious option, as the Egyptians have emphasised. (Where Israeli settler extremist groups are having more influence is in picking fights with Palestinians in the West Bank.)

From Hamas’s perspective the only way to relieve the military pressure it faces is to present Israel with the prospect of a two- or even three-front war. As I noted in my previous article, Israel believes that despite its hostile rhetoric, Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has been deterred from taking on Israel since the two last fought in 2006. Yet over the past few years, it has become more adventurous, looking for ways to demonstrate that it can hurt Israel without triggering a big response. For example, last year it attacked an offshore gas rig with a drone.

Since 7 October it has been more assertive, aware that Israel will always retaliate in some way, but also that while the latter is fighting in Gaza it would rather avoid getting into a full-blown war on its northern front. Hezbollah has been seeking to show that it supports Hamas while controlling the pace of escalation. Scores of attacks have been launched from Lebanon and Syria (not just by Hezbollah), using a range of weapons but largely against military rather than civilian targets and reasonably close to the border (some 42 communities have been evacuated by Israel). It can therefore step up its escalation by extending the range of its attacks and doing more against civilian targets.

The caution in its position, and one must assume Iran’s, could be seen in a statement from Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, on 24 October. “Hezbollah is at the heart of the battle for the resistance to defend Gaza and confront the occupation and its aggression in Palestine, Lebanon, and the region,” it said, “and its hand is on the trigger to the extent that is required in the confrontation.”

This disappointed Hamas, which hoped for more. The group’s spirits will not have been lifted by the much-awaited speech on 3 November from the leader Hassan Nasrallah. The tone was, if anything, defensive. He explained that his group had no part in the attacks of 7 October (“100 per cent Palestinian”) and how much was being done to tie Israeli forces down: “Those who claim that Hezbollah should engage swiftly in an all-out war with the enemy might see what is taking place on the border as minimal. But if you look objectively we will find it sizeable.”

Reading between the lines, he is basically telling Hamas that you started this without warning us. We’ll back you out of solidarity because your cause is just, but only so far, and we encourage others, such as the Houthis in Yemen and the Shia militias in Iraq, to do their bit. And we reserve our right to take a harder stance. But basically you are on your own.

This means that neither Hamas’s resistance nor Hezbollah’s threats impose the major limits on Israel’s strategy. It can make progress, and has done so, moving from north Gaza into Gaza City. It does however face two important limits on what it can do, the first related to a final political settlement and the second to demands for an urgent ceasefire.

It has no long-term plan for the future governance of Gaza, other than for the territory to be Hamas-free. It therefore relies on other countries to devise one. It still has relations with the major Arab states, even if they have been stressed by the last few weeks. These states have no desire to see Hamas prosper and are concerned by the prospect of a wider war promoted by Iran. They therefore have incentive to identify a workable formula.

This will require persuading Hamas that whatever its future it will not be running Gaza directly, let alone continuing to plunder its limited resources to mount calamitous military operations. Apart from anything else it will have no capacity to rebuild the Strip, so much of which has been battered by Israeli air strikes. The alternative will involve the Palestinian Authority but will need to be bolstered by a multinational effort. There is no reason to be optimistic that this will happen, at least any time soon, because of the obvious political and practical difficulties. But in principle it could, and if it doesn’t the prospect is of further instability and chaos. Most discussions of the war’s aftermath are variations on this theme.

[See also: The Labour revolt over the Gaza war]

The impact of casualties

Before all this can be put in place there must be a ceasefire. There is international pressure because of the rising numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza and the need to get relief to them. However many relief convoys arrive they are not going to be enough while conditions are so desperate and dangerous inside the territory. Even without more air and artillery strikes, a displaced population, economic collapse and a breakdown in health systems will soon take their toll, leading to malnutrition and disease. The pressure is not only on Israel to ease the pain but on those countries, in North America and Europe, that have supported Israel but now get accused of not caring about the Gazan people and of being complicit in collective punishment or even genocide.

These allegations can be refuted. A ceasefire was in place before it was breached by Hamas, leading to a massacre of anybody it came across in Israel without mercy or discrimination. Inside Gaza it has never attempted to separate its military capabilities from the civilian population. Instead they are integrated, notably with the vast network of tunnels underneath populated areas (a priority use for building materials). Any military operations into Gaza undertaken to prevent Hamas continuing its attacks were bound to harm innocent civilians.

Israel says it has attacked 11,000 targets. If the intention had been to use this amount of ordnance simply to kill civilians then the death toll would have been far higher. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have sent more than 6,000 rockets into Israel, largely against civilian targets. They have caused few Israeli casualties (and may, through misfires, have killed more Palestinians) but that is not from want of trying. Israel argues that it is still operating with strict rules of engagement designed to limit human casualties, though there are reasons to suppose that the rules of engagement have become less restrictive because of the severity of the threat posed by Hamas.  

Israel can now claim some military achievements – Hamas commanders have been killed and large amounts of military capacity destroyed, though occasional rockets have flown out of Gaza towards Israel. 

Such arguments may be valid but the counters are growing stronger. In many of the governments that have given strong support to Israel, the prevailing view remains that past Israeli policies, especially by the current government, have contributed to this dire state of affairs, and that far more restraint could have been shown in air and artillery strikes. Most importantly, whatever the rights and wrongs, the distressing reports and images of the suffering cannot be dismissed. Demonstrating that civilians are not being killed as a matter of policy does not alter the fact that they are still dying in large numbers. Without a ceasefire the situation will only get worse. Israel is left with the question as to whether it is gaining enough extra security to warrant all the extra grief being caused to innocent people.

Israel always fights in the knowledge that as soon as the US decides that it is time to stop, it will not be able to continue for much longer. President Joe Biden has already called for “pauses” – less than a ceasefire because it suggests something more temporary. The secretary of state Antony Blinken went to Israel to make the point.

In response Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that any ceasefire would depend on the release of the hostages seized by Hamas on 7 October. There have been negotiations under way, with Qatar the main intermediary, to get the hostages released. If this is a firm promise from Netanyahu then that gives Qatar something to work with, and puts the onus back on Hamas to relieve the pressure by agreeing on hostage release. At the same time it concedes an important point. If the force being used by Israel is essential to its campaign objectives then the issue of Hamas holding more than 200 Israeli hostages is beside the point. This seemed to be the view when the operations began. If there is no longer the same military necessity then the case for air- and artillery strikes into populated areas where the enemy might be hiding is reduced, whatever happens to the hostages.

Though Netanyahu speaks of months of military operations in Gaza he will have to respond to requests, as they move on to demands, from Israel’s international supporters to suspend military operations. What happens then depends on whether the key outside players, from both the Arab and Western worlds, are ready not only with a relief plan but also a peace plan.

[See also: Eitan Shamir: “In the end, the levelling of Gaza also poses an opportunity”]

In Ukraine

The impact of casualties and the narratives surrounding them is quite different in the case of Ukraine. The civilian death toll in Ukraine is high and growing. The numbers are difficult because many of those killed have been in Russian-held areas. Every day the shelling of towns and villages close to the front lines adds to the death toll. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights puts the numbers at 9,701 killed and 17,748 wounded but acknowledges that this is a considerable underestimate.

It is not civilian casualties that dominate the discussions of the future of this war but military casualties. Neither side releases details of their own casualties and so the numbers circulating are speculative and appear as round numbers, about which it is always wise to be sceptical. Ukraine updates its count of Russian military casualties on a daily basis and this has the appearance of precision. It recently topped 300,000. There is however always a tendency to overstate the harm being inflicted on an enemy. Recently the UK Ministry of Defence offered an assessment of 150,000-190,000 for the number of Russian troops either killed or permanently incapacitated by the war.

It is even harder to guess the death toll on the Ukrainian side. There is no doubt that they are substantial. Official figures at the end of 2022 from Ukraine put the numbers at 10,000-13,000 killed, which implies that they were not keeping a careful count. A recent US estimate suggested 70,000 killed and 100,000-120,000 wounded. But these are the roundest of round numbers and tell us little.

All we can say is that both sides have lost a lot of people. The human issue should not be ignored. Just because a man is wearing a uniform does not mean that he has ever been much of a combatant. His death still represents a life cut short and a family left bereaved. But in this war the sorrow at so many lives lost take second place to the question of whether casualties at this level affect the ability of the two sides to sustain the conflict. Russia is a much larger country and has a large pool of manpower to draw upon, and its tactics reflect that. Ukraine is smaller. It is still able to fight but it cannot simply throw people into futile assaults in the way that Russian commanders do.

For both sides the basic conclusion to be drawn from 2023 is that a determined defence can make offensive operations extremely difficult, so that any success takes time and comes with a high price. There was a major Russian offensive at the start of the year, led by the Wagner Group, which achieved little other than taking the eastern city of Bakhmut at high cost. This could not serve as a springboard for further action. Russia has been engaged in plenty of small-scale offensive operations since, largely in response to Ukrainian moves. At the start of October it began another major action against the town of Avdiivka, close to Bakhmut but with more potential strategic value for occupying all of the Donetsk oblast. This action is not yet over, and it is too early to declare it a failure, but it has been extraordinarily costly for the Russians, leading to the losses of thousands more troops and numerous pieces of equipment.

Ukraine’s hopes for a breakthrough offensive, so strong in the spring, are now over. This is not news. It was apparent quite early in the offensive, which began at the start of June, that the Russian defensive positions were too strong for Ukrainian forces to punch a way through. The effort has been slower and more deliberate, concentrating on eliminating the enemy’s capacity and undermining its logistics system. There have been successes. Its critical infrastructure showed some resilience in the face of persistent drone and missile attacks last winter. This threat will emerge again as Russia has built up its missile stocks in the hope of overwhelming Ukrainian air defences.

Despite efforts by Russia to prevent exports of grain, Ukraine has managed to keep doing so. In the process it has embarrassed the Russian Black Sea fleet by demonstrating its inability to cope with underwater drones and striking the key port of Sevastopol in Crimea. It has shown up the vulnerabilities of Crimea, in terms of hitting military assets based there and challenging the Russians to defend the Kerch Bridge connecting the peninsular to the mainland. Ukraine has also reduced its dependence on foreign supplies by ramping up its own production of ammunition, drones and missiles. Despite fears, and frustration at delays, external support is still at a high level and is continuing, although the Ukrainians watch anxiously to see if the Biden administration can get the latest proposed support package through Congress.

Nonetheless the situation is difficult. A recent report in Time magazine describes an increasingly beleaguered President Volodymyr Zelensky, wanting his army to press on but being urged to limit his immediate ambitions. One aide is quoted as saying that Zelensky is delusional and that Ukraine is out of options. On the record Zelensky still precludes any sort of truce: “For us it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations. Maybe it will calm some people down inside our country, and outside, at least those who want to wrap things up at any price. But for me, that’s a problem, because we are left with this explosive force. We only delay its detonation.”

It is difficult to move forward. This article suggested that some front-line commanders have refused orders to advance, preferring instead to stay in their trenches and hold the line. The problem is insufficient troops and ammunition, which is unlikely to improve for some time. The draft system has been riddled with corruption, which is now being addressed but this has led to delays in recruiting and training new troops. Meanwhile Russia presses men into service, and has been getting ammunition of uncertain quality but substantial quantity from North Korea.

[See also: The talons of empire]

In a candid interview with the Economist, the Ukrainian commander in chief, General Valery Zaluzhny has acknowledged that for now there will be no big manoeuvres to force an end to the war. “Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate… There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

He conveyed his astonishment at how much Russia is prepared to bleed and carry on with the war (interestingly he spoke of “at least 150,000 dead”, half the number reported by his general staff, although the latter may include wounded). “In any other country such casualties would have stopped the war.” He acknowledges that the problem lay neither with his commanders nor his soldiers but with the problem of overcoming fortified defensive lines.

If some of the Western systems delivered in 2023 had been available in 2022 then Ukraine might have been able to do more with its earlier offensive breakthroughs. But they came too late. It is not clear how either side can win: “The level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor,” Zaluzhny said. Modern sensors soon identify an attempted advance and precision weapons can then destroy it. The answer, he believes, lies in new technologies. In a separate essay for the Economist, he describes the technological advances needed in drones, electronic warfare, anti-artillery capabilities and de-mining equipment, including new robotic solutions. 

Ukraine needs to do more with technology because, while it has enough soldiers for now, there may soon not be enough. “Let’s be honest,” Zaluzhny writes, Russia is “a feudal state where the cheapest resource is human life. And for us… the most expensive thing we have is our people.” Yet again casualties shape how the conflict is viewed, and impose the conflicts’ constraints. Although in this case the problem lies not with the violence inflicted but the losses received.

Unlike the Hamas-Israel conflict where the pressures point to an early end to the fighting, and it is possible to imagine a political path forward, though without any confidence that it will be taken, the Ukraine conflict has no obvious resting point. Neither side is satisfied with the territorial status quo. The assumption behind the regular demands that a diplomatic option be pursued is that Vladimir Putin would be content with a ceasefire with some territorial gains to show for all his military effort. But this misses both his desire to acquire all of the four Ukrainian oblasts annexed after fake referendums last year – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – but also his need to have an acquiescent Ukraine over the long term and not one that remains hostile and backed by Nato.

It may be that Putin is waiting to see if Donald Trump can make a return to the presidency in the US elections. But few would want to rely on Trump for anything, and while the Russian president may have geared his country to cope with a few more years of war, this is not much to offer his people. Ukraine has little choice but to continue the fight while its land is occupied. Russia does have a choice although agreeing any withdrawals now would be seen as a defeat. That choice may be made. If it does not, the least harmful prospect is for neither a diplomatic nor a military breakthrough, but instead a situation in which the two sides drift into a no war/no peace situation with skirmishing and occasional bouts of tension and efforts to return life to normality away from the front lines.

In the middle of war there is always hope for a “just and lasting” peace. But the desire to end wars means there will be relief at “just a peace” and “peace at last” rather than a peace that meets standards of justice and can produce long-term stability. In neither of these wars are the prospects good. Better outcomes depend on political changes inside the warring parties. Here there is an important difference in the two conflicts. Putin looks like hanging on but it is possible to imagine Gaza without either Hamas or Israel in charge.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this article ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Who is winning the war in Ukraine?]

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