Israel and Hamas agree to ceasefire after 11 days of attacks

Smoke rises from Gaza after an Israeli airstrike (EPA / MOHAMMED SABER)

Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire after 11 days of fighting that has cost the lives of over 200 people, wounded thousands and drawn widespread condemnation from the international community.

The ceasefire came into effect at 2am local time on Friday, bringing a pause to nearly two weeks of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks. Israel’s bombing of Gaza has killed at least 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, injured thousands and devastated the city’s infrastructure. In Israel, 12 people, including two children, have been killed and around 800 injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet announced it had unanimously approved the Egypt-brokered ceasefire late on Thursday, after reports that Hamas had already agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The move came soon after US president Joe Biden, who has been widely criticised for avoiding putting public pressure on Israel to end its offensive, told Netanyahu that he expected “a significant de-escalation” of the violence. President Biden welcomed the announcement of the agreement and described it as a “genuine opportunity to make progress” towards peace in the Middle East.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” Biden said in a televised statement. “My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy towards that end.”

Speaking after the announcement, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres urged Israel and Hamas rulers to observe the ceasefire and called on global leaders to contribute to a reconstruction package “that supports Palestinian people and strengthens their institutions.” The UN has launched an emergency appeal for $ 38 million to address the “humanitarian emergency” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) including Gaza and the West Bank.

Addressing reporters at a press conference in Geneva on Friday, the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) Gaza director Matthias Schmale said the latest violence had had “an unbearable and unacceptable cost” on the civilian population, and expressed an “enormous sense of relief that 11 days of carnage and war are over ”. “[I] hope that it will stay that way,” he added. “It feels like a fragile ceasefire.”

What has the humanitarian impact been? The latest outbreak of fighting has worsened the already dire humanitarian situation for two million Palestinians in Gaza, which Gutteres described this week as “hell on earth” for children. Since fighting began on 10 May, Israeli bombardment has brought the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gaza to around 91,000, destroyed thousands of buildings, and damaged healthcare facilities and critical civilian infrastructure, cutting off power and water supplies.

Humanitarian access to the city has been largely blocked since fighting broke out on 10 May, with organisations including the WHO, UNICEF and ICRC reporting shortages of humanitarian and medical supplies. However, officials told reporters in Geneva on Friday that access points have been reopened since the ceasefire was agreed.

Speaking during the press conference, UNRWA's Schmale said organisations would immediately begin the rebuild operation in Gaza, including finding shelter for the thousands of families who sought refuge in UNRWA-run schools during the bombardment.

What caused this latest outbreak of violence? The latest outbreak of violence between Israel's military and Hamas erupted after weeks of rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, where there has been growing outrage within Palestinian communities at a crack down by Israeli police on public gatherings during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah area by Jewish settlers.

Regular protests against both the restrictions and the looming evictions were held throughout April in which police wounded hundreds of Palestinians, and there were frequent instances of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The events exploded when officers in riot gear stormed Al-Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – on 10 May. Hamas, which days earlier had issued a warning to Israeli authorities to stop aggression in East Jerusalem, began firing rockets towards the city that evening, which triggered the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

What has the reaction of the international community been? Thursday's ceasefire was agreed following mounting tensions between the US and other world powers, which manifested at the UN security council where Washington blocked three resolutions calling for an immediate end to the violence.

The lack of a unanimous statement from the UN was widely condemned, with the US's refusal to put public pressure on its ally Israel drawing the majority of criticism while other leaders decried Israel's actions. The Biden administration repeatedly asserted Israel's “right to defend itself” and insisted it was pursuing a “quiet diplomacy” with Israel and that a UN resolution would “undermine efforts to de-escalate” violence.

“It is very unfortunate timing for Biden's team after they invested so much energy declaring that the US is recommitting to multilateralism,” Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, told Geneva Solutions.

Soon before the ceasefire, France added pressure to the US when it circulated another resolution and issued a joint statement calling for a ceasefire with Egypt and Jordan. Although it is unclear what factors eventually led to an end to the crisis, the events at the security council over the past few days have prompted anger throughout the international community as well as in Biden’s own party.

“The US has fought many battles over Israel at the UN in the past, and it will likely fight many more in the future,” said Gowan. “A lot of US allies in New York will want to get past this horrible situation, and encourage the Biden administration to work through the UN on other crises like Yemen and Myanmar.”

What happens now? There have been calls that this latest outbreak of violence will prompt progress towards finally resolving some fundamental issues that underlie the decades-old conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Speaking after the ceasefire, secretary general Guterres said the UN was ready to work with both sides and other parties to return to “meaningful negotiations” on a two-state settlement based on territorial lines before the 1967 war. However, there have so far been no signs that any dialogue is set to take place, with the focus on the supply of humanitarian relief and immediate reconstruction of Gaza.

Although the ceasefire so far appears to have brought an end to the violence, there are concerns that it will undoubtedly be temporary if the wider issues between the two sides are not addressed. Fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas has regularly erupted since the group took control of Gaza in 2007, with four wars and a number of smaller clashes costing thousands of civilian lives, the majority of them Palestinian.

At the UN, the US 'unequivocal support of its ally Israel has led it to veto dozens of critical resolutions which address underlying issues such as Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters, illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank built since 1967 and discrimination against Palestinians.

“An important thing for the sake of all children and their future is this time to reach a long term peaceful solution to the seven decade long conflict,” Lucia Elmi, UNICEF special representative to the State of Palestine, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. “Any political solution that will be reached should not be going back to what it was before, as before it was unbearable and unsustainable for our children.”