Building a Better Ceasefire for Gaza


In 2005, after 38 years on the ground, Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in a move that many hoped would usher in a new era for this small strip of Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea and possibly for Israeli-Palestinian peace. For a variety of reasons, including missteps on both sides and attacks by Hamas and other factions against Israel, Gaza descended into chaos. Two years later, Hamas, an armed Palestinian group formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement and considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and others, seized control and expelled the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, who had controlled Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal. The legacy of these two critical events is that Gaza today is among the more physically, politically, and economically isolated places on earth in addition to being among the most violent flashpoints between Israel and the Palestinians. 

But as much as Gaza represents some of the worst suffering of the conflict, current political circumstances are actually ripe for concluding what could be a game-changing, long-term ceasefire between Israel and the de facto authority in Gaza, Hamas, supported by the United States. These circumstances have emerged only now, as the Biden administration has come to recognize that the pursuit of a peace process is not currently feasible. Further, due to its recent push for Israeli-Saudi normalization and the unprecedented collusion between Israel and Hamas, there is an immediate and unique opportunity for the United States to assert its leadership to more effectively reduce tensions and violence in Gaza and the West Bank, help the Palestinian Authority prepare for the post–President Mahmoud Abbas era, push Israel to curtail provocations in Jerusalem and settlement expansion in the West Bank, and advance the Abraham Accords, in turn thwarting Iranian meddling on the ground. 



The good news is that there is a foundation to build on. For the past five years, Israel and Hamas have engaged in an informal understanding, mediated by Egypt, the United Nations, Qatar, and others, that has had some success. The bad news is that the scope of the mediation is limited. Without significant support from the international community and leadership from the United States, it is unlikely to live up to its potential and progress beyond periods of quiet, followed by violent escalations. While pursuing such a long-term ceasefire may carry certain risks, this is by no means a gambit or a shot in the dark. The alternative is not a managed status quo, but an inevitable slide toward a full system collapse in Gaza with increasingly violent and destructive confrontations that could easily extend beyond Israel and Palestine.

Why Now?

Negotiations for a two-state solution have long faltered under the weight of violence, political assassination, terrorism, settlement expansion, and deep internal political divisions. For the first time since 1993, the United States, at present, is not actively pursuing a peace process between Israel and Palestine. 

Today, Israel has its most right-wing government ever, and its domestic judicial reform agenda has provoked the largest protests in the country’s history. It has adopted policies akin to annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, and some of its members have stoked tensions in East Jerusalem and in particular at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The Palestinian national movement, for its part, is in disarray amidst an ever-widening political divide. Hamas has been the de facto ruler of Gaza since 2007, whereas the Palestinian Authority, confined to a series of unconnected areas in the West Bank, is unable to exert much influence over the proliferation of armed factions across the West Bank. There has not been a Palestinian election since the ill-fated 2006 poll that Hamas won. The untenable power-sharing arrangements that resulted led to the 2007 confrontation in Gaza. 

At the same time, the international framework charged with managing and guiding the peace process, known as the Quartet and consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, has all but disintegrated. While the Quartet’s influence was always limited, it did serve as a vital coordination mechanism, linked to the U.N. Security Council, that set parameters for international engagement. In the absence of such a body, U.S. efforts to support Palestinian livelihoods, reduce tensions, and broker Israeli integration into the region appear piecemeal and have left partners in the European Union and Arab world unsure of U.S. intentions. Finally, and despite the historic achievement of the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, the Abraham Accords have done nothing to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations, nor have they helped to reduce tensions and violence on the ground.   

Yet despite reports of waning U.S. influence and accusations of a larger U.S. retreat from the region, the United States is still the most influential player when it comes to Israel and Palestine. A more coherent approach that provides structure and guidance to partners in Europe and the Arab world stands a greater chance of success. Working with allies to strengthen the Gaza ceasefire toward a more long-term arrangement is the best place to start. 

Historic Relations between Israel and Hamas 

Hamas grew to prominence in the 1990s as a result of its staunch opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s engagement with Israel during the Oslo peace process and its support for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Such attacks earned Hamas a designation by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. The Hamas-Israeli relationship, defined for the most part by violence, has had many different phases, but their interaction over the past 18 years in Gaza has been the most consequential.

The violent expulsion of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 marked a low point in internal Palestinian politics. It also marked a watershed moment for Israel. Now, the Israeli government had to pursue different policies toward the West Bank and a Gaza Strip ruled by a faction that openly espoused violence and refused to recognize Israel’s existence. The confrontations that followed included Hamas’ firing of rockets at Israel as well as toward towns and villages adjacent to Gaza’s boundary. Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire and limited incursions of ground forces. These confrontations, coupled with a debilitating Israeli closure regime on Gaza, created a dire humanitarian crisis. 

Tensions flared again between Israel and Hamas during the summer of 2014, culminating in some of the deadliest fighting in the history of the conflict. The results were terrifying in terms of the lives lost and damage on the ground and forced dramatic shifts in strategy for both Israel and Hamas. Thousands of Palestinians (more than half of them civilians) and dozens of Israelis were killed, and some $1.4 billion in damage was inflicted by Israel on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. It took this confrontation and its aftermath for Israel to realize that completely undermining Hamas’ ability to govern Gaza would not only risk further conflict, but also leave a vacuum that could be exploited by more radical and unpredictable forces. For Hamas, if it wanted to rule over more than just a heap of rubble, it needed to at least curtail its use of violence and start paying more attention to service delivery and economic growth. Despite the deep enmity between the two sides, the need to facilitate a massive, internationally funded reconstruction effort for Gaza in the wake of the conflict created grounds for a new phase for the relationship between Hamas and Israel. 

Another critical factor in this conflict continues to be the posture of the Palestinian Authority toward Hamas and Gaza. In response to Hamas’ consolidation of political control in 2017 and 2018, the Palestinian Authority made a fateful decision to withdraw subsidies on fuel for Gaza’s power plant, reduce salary payments, and remove some of its civilian personnel at the crossings with Israel and Egypt. These moves, intended to put pressure on Hamas, also exacerbated humanitarian conditions and increased the risk of renewed violence with Israel. To prevent an escalation, Israel and Hamas accepted proposals from Egypt and the United Nations, supported by Qatar, for an informal understanding whereby Hamas would stand down its rockets in exchange for increased internationally funded and Israeli-facilitated assistance. The U.N. Special Coordinator’s Office set about implementing several elements of this primarily Qatari-funded package to generate temporary employment, support critical infrastructure and increase electricity supply by at least 10 hours per day through the provision of additional diesel fuel for the power plant. This remains the basis for the ceasefire regimes that inevitably follow each round of escalation. While there have been confrontations since, including a significant round in May 2021, none has even come close to the levels of destruction from 2014.

Why Is This Urgent?

Despite massive international efforts and U.S. assistance aimed at reducing tensions, Israeli-Palestinian violence continues to reach new heights, especially on the West Bank. Between an unprecedented spike in Israeli settler violence against Palestinian civilians, Palestinian militant activity, and Israeli operations, the past two years have been among the most violent in decades. 

As all of this occurs, Gaza is on the verge of collapse and has been for years. Despite the generally predictable flow of goods, assistance, and materials for international projects, the lives of its more than two million residents are tightly controlled and, in most cases, severely restricted by Israel. Gaza has a border crossing for goods and people with Egypt, but its capacity is limited, and Egypt also restricts what comes in and out. Gaza is mainly dependent on international assistance, and its shambles of an economy (unemployment is currently at more than 45 percent according to the World Bank) depends on money sent from abroad and the flow of goods and people through these crossings. In 2012, the United Nations rang alarm bells by suggesting that by 2020 Gaza would become unlivable. The truth is that Gaza would have long been unlivable absent the enormous mitigating impact of international assistance. When you consider that close to 80 percent of Gazans receive some degree of international assistance, and that the U.N. Relief Works Agency, the largest provider of services, is facing a major shortfall in funding, it becomes difficult to see how Gaza can continue to manage over the next few years, let alone the next decade. If there is any part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is truly unsustainable, it is Gaza. While this might not end in the explosion that the United Nations has been warning of, the slow and steady erosion of services and livelihoods can be just as destructive.  


At the same time, the situation in southern Israel, while not at all comparable in its scale, continues to have broad social, economic, and security implications for the civilian population. For almost two decades, people have been living with the constant threat of rockets, mortars, and other projectiles from Gaza. While few deaths have occurred, owing to Israel’s state-of-the-art defense systems and regular access for its civilians to bomb shelters, damage, including to agricultural fields through deliberately set brush fires, has taken place. But as witnessed most recently in May 2021, the rockets can also reach Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and beyond, and can threaten Israel’s civilians and its critical infrastructure. Last April, Hamas operatives launched some 30 rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel. The attack was more symbolic than anything else, but the specter of increased coordination between Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas is a serious concern for Israel. 

Moving From Ceasefire to a Longer-Term Arrangement

There is currently no formal dialogue taking place between Israel and Hamas. Messages and information are shared as needed through a variety of intermediaries. Despite the existential nature of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, a common desire for quiet and a lack of realistic options for both have proven fertile ground. The fact that Hamas sat out and was not specifically targeted by Israel during the last two rounds of fighting between Israel and the Islamic Jihad’s forces based in Gaza suggests new degrees of nuance to the relationship. But the major difference between the current ceasefire and a longer-term ceasefire is that the former seeks to maintain an uneasy status quo, whereas a long-term understanding could help end Gaza’s isolation, reduce suffering on the ground, and pave the way for more durable changes in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, and beyond.  

The current temporary ceasefire has created critical space for some improvements to the Gaza Strip’s civilian infrastructure and economy. But it is limited by the continued use and advocacy of violence by Hamas and by Israel’s severe restrictions on the movement of goods and people. This kind of ceasefire is largely designed to produce occasional improvement in Gaza’s near-collapsed economy and civilian infrastructure through targeted international assistance, but it has not allowed for any real or sustainable economic recovery. It is an effective, but limited, tool to prevent and end various rounds of violence. 

In contrast, a long-term ceasefire, although still an informal arrangement, would over time become far more encompassing and transformative. The success of such a ceasefire would require specific and difficult decisions such as confidence-building measures on both sides, a noticeable reduction in violence, and major changes to Israel’s blockade and closure regime. However, the benefits would be significant — it could potentially facilitate several of the more lucrative yet still-stalled international projects aimed at improving Gaza’s energy and water supply, which could make it much less reliant on Israel. The United States is particularly well placed to build on its success with the Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement and help remove the various obstacles to the construction of a gas pipeline to Gaza. By reengaging the Palestinian Authority, such an agreement could help normalize trade through Israel and Egypt and revitalize manufacturing in Gaza. It could create new connections between Gaza and the West Bank economy, bringing in investment from Israel and, in particular, the Israeli Arab community. The specific projects and areas for development and cooperation are well known and have all been discussed for several years, but the lack of engagement by the Palestinian Authority and the policies of successive Israeli governments have, in part at least, delayed implementation. Establishing a long-term ceasefire would also offer a political and economic horizon for Palestinians for the first time in many years, if not decades.  

What Can Be Done?

The Biden administration’s goal of helping Israelis and Palestinians “enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy” won’t materialize without security for both sides. Instead of waiting for the next round of violence in Gaza, the United States should be looking to rally support for ongoing efforts by Egypt, Qatar, the United Nations, and others to maintain and strengthen ceasefire arrangements for Gaza to meet urgent humanitarian needs, improve security and livelihoods for Palestinians and Israelis alike, and prevent further escalation. Codifying this in a U.N. Security Council statement or other such international context could also help revive a multilateral framework for dealing with the conflict while also reasserting U.S. leadership. 

A ceasefire would also be a means of assuring that the Palestinian Authority, despite its predilections to the contrary, reengages on Gaza. While Hamas is the de facto authority in Gaza for now, a political future for Palestinians and the idea of Palestinian statehood are also dependent on the Palestinian Authority. The United States should prepare for the day after the 87-year-old Abbas leaves the scene. His departure could create instability on the ground but could also help stimulate a vital conversation regarding the future of the Palestinian national movement, its internal relations, and its strategy vis-à-vis Israel. 

Establishing a lasting ceasefire won’t be easy, of course, not least of all because Hamas is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. This is why the United States will have no choice but to rely on others, like Egypt, Qatar, and the United Nations, but is also why it needs to seek to revive an international framework, ideally with a link to the U.N. Security Council, that can incorporate this policy and ensure that others (like the European Union and Arab states) come in to support.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to protect the ceasefire from other points of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, such as in Jerusalem. Absent a final status arrangement for Jerusalem, the situation will remain contentious. Israel has always recognized the role of Jordan in administering the Islamic holy sites, but the symbolism of Jerusalem is far larger, and Jordan’s influence is limited. If there was ever a reason to harness the momentum and spirit of the Abraham Accords to help prevent violence between Israelis and Palestinians, then surely Jerusalem, despite its complexities, would make the most sense. As the United States moves forward in the effort to secure Israeli-Saudi normalization, it will be important that, at a minimum, any agreement make explicit reference to Israel’s commitment not to formally annex (and even roll back if need be) the West Bank and to preserve the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites. Israel might bristle at any linkage to the Palestinian issue, but an official recognition by Saudi Arabia of Jerusalem’s significance for Muslims, Christians, and Jews would surely transcend politics.    

In offering a political horizon for historically violent factions like Hamas, a long-term arrangement could also mark the beginning of a political reorientation process away from Iran’s orbit. A post–Israeli-Saudi normalization era would also completely change the notion of what it means to recognize Israel’s right to exist. If handled well by the United States and other mediators and coupled with wise decision-making on the part of Israel and Hamas, there would be a significant blow to Iranian efforts to coordinate all “violent resistance” factions against Israel.  

The idea of a long-term ceasefire was previously thought to be unrealistic and even harmful, as it would have undermined any active peace process. A two-state solution should clearly remain the goal, but in the meantime, there is an opportunity to exploit changes in the region and the reality that Israel and Hamas are moving toward a more practical modus vivendi. Gaza holds promise, but it can also be the epicenter of the conflict. If the current ceasefire is sufficiently strengthened and expanded, it could reduce tensions and help introduce the type of changes for Israelis, Palestinians, and the wider region that the U.S. administration has been striving for. The alternative — intermittent periods of violence — runs counter to U.S. interests and is a far more dangerous prospect for everyone, first and foremost for Israelis and Palestinians.  



Jonathan Lincoln is the interim director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown Universitys School of Foreign Service. He spent 15 years with the United Nations working on and in the Middle East and North Africa. From 2017 to2021, he was the senior coordination officer based in Jerusalem with the Office of the U.N. Special Coordinator supporting the provision of international assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.  

Image: Department of State