But if this counts as bright, it’s a reflection of how dark the situation has become. Gaza has been devastated by thousands of airstrikes and urban warfare, with more than 13,000 Palestinians reported dead and 80 percent of the population displaced. Violence is flaring in the West Bank. Israel remains traumatized at divided by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, which left some 1,200 people dead. More than 160 hostages are still thought to be captive in Gaza, Israel said Wednesday. In some cases, the release of hostages has only led to more anguish, as captives discovered their loved ones were among the dead.
What comes next could be even more misery. Despite the calls from the United Nations and mediating parties including Qatar to extend the reprieve into a longer cease-fire, the pause looks set to end soon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has indicated that the pause can last no more than 10 days, which would take it to this weekend and no longer. After that, Israel is determined to resume fighting, with officials emphasizing that their primary aim — the destruction of Hamas — has not yet been completed.
On Wednesday, Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said he had approved the battle plan after the end of the pause. “We know what needs to be done, and are ready for the next step,” he said, according to an Israel Defense Force statement.
Exactly what that plan involves is not clear, but the only path appears to lie south. Israeli officials say many of Hamas’s leaders have fled Gaza City and its environs in the north. This month, before the pause began, Israel began dropping leaflets near Khan Younis, a city in the south, warning them to move westward toward the ocean.
Biden administration presses Israel for restraint in south Gaza
An estimated 2 million Palestinians, a vast share of the displaced, are in the southern part of Gaza, many having already heeded earlier Israeli warnings to leave Gaza’s heavily populated northern area. Even supportive countries, among them the United States, are wary of more civilian harm. On Tuesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said this meant “more of an added burden on Israel to make sure that as they start to plan for operations in the south, whatever that looks like, that they have properly accounted for … the extra innocent life that is now in south Gaza.”
Privately, the Biden administration has begun to push back more forcefully, my colleague Karen DeYoung reports. “They can’t do what they did in the north in the south,” one senior official told The Washington Post. The United States is calling for a clear Israeli plan, according to accounts from this and other officials, that imposes strict operational limits about where operations can take place and protects hospitals and U.N. facilities.
And while the United States has not backed calls for a lengthier or even semi-permanent cease-fire, it had been working for a longer pause. CIA Director William J. Burns arrived in Qatar this week with the aim of pushing Hamas and Israel to broaden the focus of their ongoing hostage negotiations to include not only women and children, but also men and military personnel, lengthening the pause beyond this weekend.
At home, Netanyahu faces pressure from the other side. “Stopping the war = breaking apart the government,” Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right politician who serves as national security minister in Netanyahu’s fragile government coalition, said in a statement Tuesday. Not long afterward, the prime minister released his own statement that “there is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end,” arguing that the Israeli people supported resuming the war.
It’s not hard to see why Israeli officials bristle at the mention of a prolonged cease-fire. If the most significant aim of this conflict is to destroy Hamas, an ambition that many Israeli allies say they support, that task is not complete: Clearly, Hamas has not been destroyed if it still holds hostages and is able to negotiate for their release.
But how long would it take to destroy Hamas? “It’s going to take months,” Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a Likud member and the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told my colleagues. “We got used to this kind of short war, a week or a weekend. We are no longer at this place as we can no longer manage Hamas. We have spent the last 15 years trying to manage Hamas and they have made it clear we cannot clear with them … We need to essentially eliminate them.”
With international calls for a more permanent cease-fire growing, and with the governments of even steadfast allies of Israel, such as the United States, growing anxious about the enormous civilian toll, Israel may not have time on its side. There’s a huge economic cost the conflict given the number of Israelis now working in the military rather than the economy: Israel’s central bank forecast this week that the war with Hamas will cost $53 billion between 2023 and 2025, with a 3 percent hit to gross domestic product.
Some argue that the price is worth paying. “The costs of war are short term, relative to the long-term benefit of people going back to living safely,” one Israeli official told The Post’s David Ignatius last weekend. Yet with so much uncertainty about the next round of fighting, thousands of noncombatants killed or injured, and no clear plan for what happens to Gaza once the conflict is over, it may not be such a simple calculation.
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.