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Gaza update: Netanyahu knocks back Hamas peace plan while the prospect of mass famine looms ever larger

The Israeli military is poised to enter what its defence minister, Yoav Gallant, has referred to as the “last centre of gravity that remains in Hamas’s hands: Rafah”. Unfortunately for many of the 1.7 million people reportedly displaced by Israel’s four-month onslaught in Gaza, this is where more than a million of them have taken refuge, according to the latest estimates.

As the Gaza death toll compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) surpassed 26,750 people, with a further 65,000-plus people wounded, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected a peace deal proposed by Hamas and relayed by Egyptian and Qatari negotiators as “deluded”.

The proposed three-part plan was for a staged cessation of hostilities and prisoner-hostage swap, with the aim of ending the war completely via negotiations to be finalised by the time the final hostages had been returned.

Insisting that “the day after [the war] is the day after Hamas – all of Hamas”, Netanyahu said he intended to press on until Israel had achieved “total victory”.

But Anne Irfan, an expert in the history of the modern Middle East from University College London, believes the Israeli prime minister may be thinking it is in his own interests to keep the conflict going as long as he can. His personal approval ratings are abysmal – only 15% of Israelis in a recent survey said they thought he should keep his job after the war ends.

Map showing the latest developments in Israel's war with Hamas.
Map of Israel’s war with Hamas. Institute for the Study of War

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is increasingly trapped between the clamour from the families of the Israeli hostages still trapped in Gaza, and the intransigence of the far-right members of his own government who won’t consider doing a deal with Hamas.

Read more: Netanyahu's position becoming more uncertain as Israeli PM rejects Hamas deal to end war

Netanyahu has also resisted international pressure to consider a two-state solution, which would by definition involve a sovereign Palestine, insisting that Israel is the only state that can guarantee regional security in the long term.

Despite Netanyahu’s wholesale rejection of the notion of Palestinian statehood, both the US and UK have said they are considering the possibility of recognising Palestine after the conflict ends. The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, said such a move would be “absolutely vital for the long-term peace and security of the region”.

They would be coming into line with much of the rest of the world: 139 of 193 UN members have already recognised the state of Palestine, which has sat in the UN as a “non-member observer state” since 2012, and has already acceded to many of its human rights treaties.

Gaza Update is available as a fortnightly email newsletter. Click here to get our updates directly in your inbox.

Tonny Raymond Kirabira, an expert in international law at the University of East London, walks us through the complex issues involved in becoming a state. At the moment, international law dictates that the prerequsites for statehood are a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. As Kirabira reminds us, questions remains whether Palestine actually possesses a “defined territory” and “effective government”.

Read more: UK and US may recognise state of Palestine after Gaza war – what this important step would mean

So what is the two-state solution? It’s a vexed issue that has been exercising the minds of peacemakers since before the state of Israel was even formally declared in 1948. An early UN partition plan called for what was then known as the “Mandate of Palestine” – under British control – to be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Andrew Thomas, an expert in the politics of the Middle East from Deakin University in Australia, runs through the various iterations of the two-state solution since 1948 – and recalls the Oslo accords in the 1990s, when the then-Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, got so close to agreeing a solution which would have recognised Palestine as a state while guaranteeing Israeli security.

Read more: Explainer: what is the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

War crime and punishment

Netanyahu’s pledge to push on to total victory, meanwhile, flies in the face of demands made by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) more than a week ago. The ICJ ordered Israel to take steps to prevent genocidal actions in Gaza, to punish incitement to genocide, to allow Gaza’s people access to humanitarian aid, and to preserve and collect any evidence of war crimes committed during the conflict.

It appears Israel has not yet done any of these things, although it has about another three weeks until it is due to report back to the ICJ. Basema Al-Alami, an expert in international law from the University of Toronto, considers how reports of what is happening on the ground in Gaza conflict with the ICJ’s demands, and also what pressure the ICJ rulings will put on Israel’s international donors to reconsider their stance.

Read more: Israel isn't complying with the International Court of Justice ruling — what happens next?

It didn’t take the international community long to act after Israel raised allegations that some staff from the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) had taken part in Hamas’s October 7 massacres. Within days, 18 donor countries including the UK and US had pulled their support for UNRWA, the principal charity supplying aid to Palestinians.

UCL’s Irfan and Jo Kelcey of the Lebanese American University assess the fallout from this mass withdrawal of support, concluding that it could be catastrophic for Palestinians in Gaza, 87% of whom are dependent on UNRWA for its services which include food aid, shelter and medical care. They also point out that Israel’s allegations about the involvement of UNRWA staff in October 7 came the day after the ICJ published its interim ruling.

Read more: Gaza conflict: what is UNRWA and why is Israel calling for its abolition?

Greg Kennedy, an expert in strategic foreign policy issues at King’s College London, believes that Israel is deliberately weaponising food supplies in Gaza. He writes that it has been a tactic of war for centuries, and that sieges and blockades remain part of the arsenal of armed conflict.

Starvation, Kennedy adds, can seriously undermine morale and the will to resist. It is also a collective punishment – something explicitly banned under international humanitarian law.

Read more: Gaza: weaponisation of food has been used in conflicts for centuries – but it hasn't always resulted in victory

There goes the neighbourhood

Day by day, missile by missile, tensions are ratcheting up around the region as Iran-backed proxies, who have been targeting US military bases for years, have stepped up their campaign of harassment. Taken individually, these attacks are of little significance. As Middle East expert Julie Norman from UCL notes, neither Iran nor the US wants to wage a major conflict at the moment – but both countries have political reasons for wanting to act tough.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic presides over a parlous economy and considerable public unrest as the “woman, life, freedom” mass protests continue. In the White House, meanwhile, Joe Biden wants a telegenic show of US force without embroiling his country in a major land war.

Read more: Middle East crisis: US airstrikes against Iran-backed armed groups explained

George W. Bush once joked to troops in the Middle East: “You don’t run for office in a democracy and say, ‘Please vote for me, I promise you war.’” And as Andrew Payne, an international security expert from City, University of London notes, Bush – as well as his successor in the White House, Barack Obama, and even the vainglorious Donald Trump (who said of a recent attack on a US base in Jordan: “This attack would NEVER have happened if I was president, not even a chance.”) – grew increasingly averse to military action as the next election loomed.

Read more: Middle East conflict: Joe Biden must weigh the risks of using force in an election year

Christoph Bluth, an expert in international affairs at the University of Bradford, presents a cast list of Iran’s affiliates in the region, and explains how Tehran is using them to further its long-term aims in the region – from replacing the US as the dominant power to establishing an “axis of resistance” that could potentially box in Israel.

Read more: How Iran controls a network of armed groups to pursue its regional strategy

Gaza Update is available as a fortnightly email newsletter. Click here to get our updates directly in your inbox.

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