Can Historical Cases of Negotiated Settlements Inform the Debate on Post-Conflict Gaza?


Israel’s war against Hamas has been largely focused on the military dimensions of the conflict, with limited discussions about the role of diplomacy outside of a successful one-off hostage-for-prisoner swap. Now, more than three months into the fighting, there are more frequent references to political proposals on what a governing structure in Gaza might look like in a post-conflict setting. On Jan. 11, departing from Egypt and heading back to the United States after a whirlwind trip of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that there was support from leaders in the region for a two-state solution, the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. In a massive understatement, Blinken went on to say, “None of this will happen overnight.” 

Any agreement will require major concessions, likely from both sides, which seems daunting at this stage. But there is historical precedent based on how other insurgencies have ended if there is political leadership on both sides willing to take calculated risks supported by their respective constituencies. A durable cease-fire or peace agreement will require both sides to accept the other as a legitimate negotiating partner and a moderation in the leadership of both sides, while sidelining the most extreme voices. 

Israel’s stated goal when the conflict kicked off was to eradicate Hamas, but the Israel Defense Forces are realizing how difficult it will be to achieve that objective. I believe Hamas will survive and, according to recent polling, will emerge from this war with Israel with more popular support than ever before. Hamas has grown in popularity not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank, where Fatah, the dominant political party within the Palestine Liberation Organization that controls the Palestinian Authority, has traditionally held sway. Fatah’s octogenarian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has led the sclerotic Palestinian government in the West Bank for years and is an uninspired choice for future office. While it remains a daunting prospect for many Israelis, for any two-state solution to be sustainable, some component of Hamas’ political wing would likely need to form part of the Palestinian governing apparatus. And if a Palestinian state is formed without any representation from Hamas, the group will likely play the role of spoiler, continuing to engage in politically motivated violence and terrorism to protest its exclusion from the peace process.



The Israeli government, understandably, cannot fathom Hamas playing even a minor role in any future Palestinian state. Israel has just suffered the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, an act of pure terrorism that killed 1,200 Israelis, often in a rather brutal fashion. It was the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. In the aftermath of such a devastating attack, many Israelis believe that allowing Hamas political operatives to form part of a Palestinian state would be akin to rewarding terrorists for their savage acts. While Hamas political leadership was reportedly unaware of the plans for the Oct. 7 attack, the scale of the atrocities — including reports of rape and dismemberment — will likely make a Palestinian state with any Hamas members a nonstarter for the Israelis. I am not arguing that Israel should feel compelled to negotiate with Hamas. But if the goal is a sustainable political solution, excluding the most popular Palestinian entity, even one that has committed the odious acts that Hamas has, is unlikely to result in an enduring negotiated settlement.

When one takes a glance at the history of terrorism and insurgency, there are myriad examples of terrorist groups, or at least the political wing of terrorist groups, transitioning to politics as part of post-conflict governing structures. It is difficult to isolate a single variable, but war weariness, military stalemate, and visionary political figures can all be important factors in providing an opening for diplomacy.

Israel’s Far Right Politics 

Hamas’ intransigence has been well documented, with the group’s hard-liners refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. But there are extreme elements on the Israeli side also, and when hard-liners are empowered, it significantly decreases the chances of successful negotiations. 

If the far right elements of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition have their way, a two-state solution will never happen at all. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and a member of its ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party, has recently advocated for Israel to rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza, while National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads the ultranationalist Jewish Power Party, said that the best solution to the conflict, in addition to rebuilding settlements, is “encouraging emigration,” meaning expelling Palestinians to surrounding Arab countries and refusing to allow them to return. From the beginning, there have been mixed signals from Israel’s political leadership, especially Netanyahu, who has openly bragged about denying the Palestinians the opportunity to form a state. 

Even the ideas put forth by nonextremist elements are still plagued by gaping holes, faulty assumptions, and mirror-imaging. Many are completely unrealistic or nonstarters for one side. Most proposals are focused on the role of the Palestinian Authority in governing Gaza when the conflict ends, neglecting to deal with the reality that Hamas will still hold sway among local Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Whenever the fighting winds down, Hamas could have a significant portion of its organization intact, as the Washington Post reports that as of December, Israel had killed 5,000 of Hamas’ 30,000-strong force of terrorist cadres. In any case, Hamas’ manpower has never been the primary source of its political power. A large swath of the Qassam Brigades may survive the conflict, but so too will members of the group’s political bureau. There is also the issue of Palestine Islamic Jihad, another Sunni militant group backed by Iran, that is unlikely to quietly accept a negotiated settlement where its members are sidelined. 

How Insurgencies End

How insurgencies and terrorist campaigns end has been the subject of much academic research, with the empirical evidence demonstrating a number of good practices for counter-insurgent forces to draw upon. There are important lessons learned that can be gleaned from even a cursory glance at the broader body of historical cases on insurgency and terrorism, including policy guidance related specifically to cases that ended with negotiated political settlements.

In Northern Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army gave way to Sinn Fein, with the “Provos” decommissioning their arsenal in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a deal that has largely kept the peace. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was once an African National Congress leader and was labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government, before his remarkable transition to peacemaker and a symbol of the end of apartheid. Quite ironically, Menachem Begin, who would later go on to become Israel’s sixth prime minister, was once the leader of the Irgun, an anti-British insurgent group responsible for bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a deadly terrorist attack that killed 91 and injured another 46.

Other examples abound, including groups that are perhaps best characterized as hybrid organizations wherein, like Hamas, they retain both a military wing and a political wing. In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had ten of its former members join Colombia’s parliament in 2018 as part of a peace deal between the government and the terrorist group. Lebanese Hizballah has participated in Lebanon’s parliament since 1992. In Kosovo, Agim Ceku, the former leader of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army, was elected prime minister of the province in 2006. Hamas itself broke with its longstanding prohibition on electoral politics and sat for Palestinian Legislative Council elections in Gaza in 2006. So, despite the group’s choice of terrorism as its go-to modus operandi, some of its leaders have shown a willingness to engage politically in the past. Israeli intelligence would be well served to identify potential moderates within Hamas and begin cultivating a relationship with politically minded members of the group that might be open to rejecting terrorism and violent extremism. 

When terrorist and insurgent groups are completely excluded from the political process, they continue with violence. In some instances, terrorist groups do transition to political parties, but some segments of the organization may reject peace, embrace violence as the only response, and form splinter groups that go on to continue fighting. In Northern Ireland, the Real Irish Republican Army was a dissident Irish Republican paramilitary group that refused to recognize the 1997 cease-fire and subsequent peace agreement. In Algeria, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat splintered off from the Armed Islamic Group in the late 1990s toward the end of Algeria’s bloody civil war. In Southeast Asia, the Indonesian terror outfit Jemaah Islamiyah has seen multiple splinters emerge over the years.

If every member of Hamas — not the Qassam Brigades, which should absolutely be excluded — is prevented from a governing role, these individuals will serve as ready recruits for Hamas’ military wing. This does not mean that notorious Hamas political leaders like Ismail Haniyeh or Khaled Meshaal should be statesmen — they are likely too tainted from the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7. Besides, if Israel continues its campaign of targeted assassinations (while Israel refused to claim the operation, most observers believe the Israeli government was behind the killing of Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’ political bureau), individuals like Haniyeh and Meshaal may end up in Mossad’s crosshairs, as will Hamas military leaders like Mohammed Deif and Yahya Sinwar. But there should be serious consideration given to Hamas political members who accept politics over terrorism and have legitimacy among the broader Palestinian population. 


Research that I conducted during my time at the RAND Corporation examined all insurgencies from the end of World War II until 2009, a total of 71 cases that varied temporally and geographically. Of the 71 insurgencies analyzed, 29 ended in a negotiated settlement, while of these 29, a subset of 13 cases had “mixed” outcomes, meaning that one or both sides made major concessions to reach a peaceful agreement. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will take nothing short of major concessions for the conflict to end. Out of the sequence of events that many of the 13 cases with “mixed” outcomes had in common, two steps are particularly salient to the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinians — accepting the terrorists or insurgents as legitimate, and moderation in the leadership of the terrorist or insurgent group involved in negotiations. Even in cases where violence could be characterized as beyond the pale, there were examples of the government accepting the insurgents or terrorists into the political process — it happened in both Bosnia and Burundi. There also needs to be a moderation of rebel leadership, as occurred in Northern Ireland and South Africa when terrorist leaders traded the bullet for the ballot box.

The challenges to finding a political solution to this conflict remain immense. There are multiple echelons to consider, including intra-Palestinian jockeying over the most legitimate entity to govern a Palestinian state. Since a two-state solution would be predicated upon accepting Israel’s right to exist, by default, this jettisons the hard-liners within Hamas, who have vowed to remain steadfast in their opposition to the Jewish state. The best chances for a sustainable political agreement would be some combination of Fatah and members of Hamas’ political bureau who might be open to regaining their former positions in Palestinian and Gazan politics. A Palestinian unity government should also include individuals who are neither Hamas nor Fatah. But there needs to be a tangible deal in place, and not simply a “pathway” to a deal that can be subsumed beneath Saudi-Israeli normalization or some other Abraham Accords-like arrangement that shelves the issue of a Palestinian state. The roots of this conflict run deep and stretch back decades, so a sustainable solution will require more than just a cosmetic treatment of Palestinian grievances. 

The Biden administration has consistently reiterated its desire to see a two-state solution as an answer to changing the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and recent reports suggest that Biden is running out of patience with Netanyahu. No deal will be possible without buy-in from the broader region, including the leadership in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states. And while the notion of Hamas members in a future Palestinian government seems unpalatable to many, history suggests that it remains a distinct possibility, particularly if a negotiated settlement is to be enduring and sustainable, an outcome that has proven elusive throughout the tenure of this intractable conflict. 



Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. 

Image: Israel Defense Forces