Release of hostages and ceasefire are the first steps to ease tension in Gaza - Hindustan Times
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Release of hostages and ceasefire are the first steps to ease tension in Gaza

Oct 21, 2023 12:07 AM IST

Israel must stop the bombardment of Gaza, announce a ceasefire, and allow humanitarian relief. An enduring peace would involve return to the two-State solution

The Hamas terror attack on civilians needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. Since October 7, the death toll in Israel has mounted to 1,300. Considering Israel’s population of 9.3 million, this is a very high number indeed. Israel’s retaliatory bombardment has resulted in the killing of 3,300 people in Gaza according to Palestinian officials. Israel’s demand that 1.1 million Gazans north of Wadi Ghaza move south has created a humanitarian crisis. West Asia is on the verge of a major conflagration. Its impact will be felt by the outside world. Oil prices which were on a downward trajectory before October 7, have gone up sharply.

Israeli troops patrol at an undisclosed location along the border with the Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023. (AFP)
Israeli troops patrol at an undisclosed location along the border with the Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023. (AFP)

The Israeli-Arab wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 were inter-State wars. Asymmetrical wars with armed groups are more difficult to predict or stop. The region witnessed such wars between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and Israel and Hamas in 2008 and 2014. The total number of people killed this time around has already exceeded the combined toll of the previous three wars. The outcome of a prolonged war in the region could fuel the narrative of a clash of civilisations. What makes the situation more difficult now is not simply the destructive power of high-tech weaponry, but the expansion of the war aims. Hamas killed and took civilians hostage. Israel has made it clear that its goal is the destruction of Hamas. It may succeed in achieving this goal, but will this prevent the rise of a more extremist organisation in its place?

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A protracted conflict may not remain confined to Gaza. There are already skirmishes on Israel’s northern border with the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran’s Supreme Leader has stated that Tehran was not involved in the Hamas attack. The United States (US) secretaries of state and defence, as well as US President Joe Biden, have stated that there is no evidence linking Iran with the terror strike. Iran has, however, voiced support for the Palestinian people. Saudi Arabia as well as other Arab States have reiterated support for the two-State solution. This indeed has been the position of the international community, including the US. In the fog of war, the need for a long-term solution to the Palestinian problem should not be forgotten.

What will be the political status of Gaza after the present round of conflict? Will Israel take over the administration of the territory? Will the Palestinian Authority accept this role? They may not like to be seen returning to the Gaza Strip on the back of Israeli tanks. There are large-scale demonstrations in the West Bank. Will an inflamed Palestinian sentiment undermine the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas? If this happens, it could create the problem of the Gaza Strip on a much larger scale in the West Bank.

There is an ambivalence in the positions of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (IOC) member States. While Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have condemned the terror attack on Israel, this element is missing in the statements by other States. The search for a long-term political solution has to be built on a clear recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbours.

President Biden has affirmed US support for Israel and ordered a second aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean. He has invested his personal authority by visiting Israel in the midst of the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, the bombing of the hospital in Gaza queered the pitch before his visit began. His summit meeting with leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority was called off by the Arab side. Biden urged Israel to avoid the mistakes made by the US after 9/11. He also stated that Israel risked “losing credibility worldwide” if it did not “relieve the suffering of people who have nowhere to go”.

The spread of war to new fronts will not help anyone. Regional powers could play a role in defusing the crisis. The normalisation of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia is a silver lining. Without this, the situation in the region would have been more tense. Could this regional détente be extended by restoring the nuclear deal, which was agreed by P5+1, including the US? The only way to avoid “forever wars” is to give all countries in the region a stake in peace.

Unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council remains deadlocked. The Russian draft resolution failed to muster a majority. The Brazilian draft was vetoed by the US. The first step towards de-escalation of the situation would be the release of Israeli women and children by Hamas. Their release cannot be linked to the long-term demand for a two-State solution. Israel must stop the bombardment of Gaza, announce a ceasefire, allow humanitarian relief, and restore electricity. This should be followed by the deployment of a peacekeeping force in Gaza to prevent the recurrence of violence. An enduring peace would involve a return to the two-State solution.

DP Srivastava is a former ambassador and has served in the Middle East and Iran. The views expressed are personal

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