The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live! This week, I sat down with Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR. We discussed the end of the humanitarian pause in Gaza, the resumption of the fighting, and the likely future of the conflict.
Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the collapse of the temporary ceasefire in Gaza and the future of the conflict between Israel and Hamas
Here are seven highlights from our discussion:
1.) Roughly one hundred hostages held by Hamas in Gaza were released during the pause in the fighting. Under the terms of the seven-day temporary ceasefire that Qatar helped negotiate, Israel released more than 240 Palestinian detainees and prisoners. The pause enabled more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. But Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) both used the break to regroup and prepare for more fighting.
2.) More than one hundred hostages remain in Gaza, but the exact number is unclear. One reason no one knows the precise number of hostages is that some of them are likely being held by groups besides Hamas, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Also, as Steven pointed out, “the big unknown is how many of those hostages are now dead.” He added that “from the testimonies of those who have been held hostage, people have been held in very stark conditions with little or no medical care, scarce amounts of food.”
3.) Israel has refocused its military offensive on southern Gaza. In October and November, the IDF urged Palestinian civilians to head to southern Gaza while Israel attacked Hamas positions in northern Gaza. With the IDF now attacking southern Gaza, the problem, Steven said, is that “there’s now no place left for Palestinian civilians to go.” He added that well-placed Israelis had told him that the offensive in southern Gaza will unfold differently than did the offensive in northern Gaza. However, “thus far, Israelis continue to use air power and artillery in order to pave the way for ground forces.”
4.) The Israeli public supports the IDF’s military operation against Gaza. Steven noted that while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “approval ratings are quite low,” the country has rallied around the flag if not the prime minister. Israel isn’t “seeing the sharp divisions” that it experienced before October 7—“or even the kind of usual divisions that you see within Israeli politics.” Steven said that “there is a sense in Israel that this is an existential fight for survival and that’s why there’s so much support for the full force of the IDF being used in the Gaza strip.”
5.) Israel continues to face sharp criticism for how it is conducting its war on Hamas. The death toll for Palestinian civilians in Gaza has topped 15,000, and a majority of those killed are women and children. The images of the devastation in Gaza have prompted calls around the world for a ceasefire. Criticism of how the IDF is fighting the war extends to the United States and even to people who otherwise support Israel’s right to attack Hamas. Steven noted that the IDF “clearly has not taken the kind of care that I think the Biden administration would like it to take in its targeting that would avoid these types of civilian deaths.” Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin all have urged Israel in recent days to do more to protect Palestinian civilians. Austin went so far as to warn the Israelis that they risk “strategic failure” if they continue on their current course. It was not lost in Jerusalem, however, that President Biden has yet to publicly pressure Israel.
6.) The fighting will persist for some time. While the idea of a ceasefire is popular at the UN and in many foreign capitals, Israel is determined to destroy Hamas. As Steven put it, “the Israelis believe that they're fighting for their lives.” The result is that even if Hamas is willing to negotiate, Israel sees “the idea of a ceasefire [as] essentially a unilateral surrender to the ever-present threat of Hamas terrorism.” Before October 7, Israelis believed that “they could deter Hamas. They no longer believe that they can or that deterrence is desirable.” Israelis also note that despite the bubbling anger in the Arab world over Gaza, no Arab government has threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Israel or come to Hamas’s aid.
7.) U.S. support for Israel’s war on Hamas will be a flashpoint in U.S. politics. Divisions have already appeared within the Democratic Party about limiting or conditioning U.S. support for Israel. Those divisions are likely to grow as the fighting grinds on. Meanwhile, support for Israel within the Republican Party is, as Steven put it, “rock solid.” That political reality may persuade Israeli officials that “they can take risks by defying at least the vice president, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of state.” Israelis may take that view even if President Biden himself tries to force them to change course.
If you’re looking to read more of Steven’s analysis, check out his most recent pieces for Foreign Policy magazine on how “This War Won’t Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict” and “Why Israel Will Probably End Up Reoccupying Gaza.” The titles say it all.