Qatar's spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Majed Al-Ansari, speaks to journalists during a press conference in Doha, Qatar, November 23, 2023. (Source: REUTERS/IMAD CREIDI) 

Implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian temporary truce agreement, mediated primarily by Qatar, commenced on the morning of 24 November. Formally, it will expire after four days. But it is structured in a manner that allows for and encourages its extension.

In the coming days, significant efforts should be devoted to transforming what remains a fragile truce, limited exchange of captives, and expansion of humanitarian relief, into a more stable ceasefire during which the civilian population of the Gaza Strip can receive sufficient volumes of desperately-needed essential supplies on a stable basis, and negotiations conducted for an end to this horrific war and a comprehensive exchange of captives.

There are, to be sure, solid grounds for pessimism. Israel's leadership, and not Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu alone, have a variety of motives for continuing and further escalating their ferocious onslaught on the population and infrastructure Gaza Strip. Israel's security establishment has yet to achieve a meaningful military objective with which it believes it can help offset, however partially, the stain of its catastrophic failure on 7 October. Netanyahu believes that so long as the war continues, he retains the possibility of salvaging his career or at least cutting a deal that will prevent corruption charges against him resulting in a prison sentence. Several of his key coalition partners view the current crisis primarily as a golden opportunity to realize Greater Israeli by way of extensive land grabs and ethnic cleansing throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further afield the United States and its European allies want to ensure Hamas is no longer able to rule the Gaza Strip.

The above notwithstanding, Israel's leaders, and those of its Western allies even more so, appear to be coming to the realization that the Israeli military is incapable of eradicating Hamas, and that continuing the offensive would impose greater political, economic, and military costs than Israel can bear, and significantly increase the already substantial diplomatic damage to the West and its rules-based international order, whose contradictions have been so visibly exposed since in the weeks before the agreement was reached.

The truce, however brief, may also witness the accelerated disintegration of the Israeli government. If the exchange of captives is successfully conducted, Israeli public opinion can also be expected to support its extension of the truce in order to facilitate further releases.

Crucially, there is also a growing realization in Washington and European capitals that the renewal of hostilities will be accompanied by further regional escalation that may well lead to greater and more costly US involvement. The prospect of challenges to the security and stability of its regional allies will only increase over time. US confidence in Israel's military planning and capabilities also appears to be rapidly diminishing.

The Palestinians are likely to prove the most cooperative with any extension of the truce. Not because they are desperate, but rather because the current agreement largely reflects the conditions they proposed before the Israeli ground invasion commenced. In imposing its conditions Hamas has already demonstrated its ability to survive intact the most intensive bombing campaign in the history of the Middle East, and established that the captives file will only be resolved by negotiation and agreement rather than military force. At the same time the unbearable costs inflicted by Israel's orgy of retribution against the population of the Gaza Strip will encourage the Palestinian movement to seek greater relief for Palestinian society and a rapid return to normalcy within the coastal territory.

With Hamas and Israel refusing direct negotiations, and the United States unwilling to engage with Palestinian militants, Qatar together with Egypt was able to fulfil the role of mediator on the basis of existing relationships with all of the relevant players. It is thus also well-place to take the lead in promoting an extension of the truce, and efforts to transform it into a formal or at least indefinite ceasefire.

The entry point for any such initiative is indisputably a further exchange of captives, a goal each of the parties is seeking to achieve. In the current agreement, only women and children, and only those that are Israeli or dual nationals are to be released. This was done primarily to allay Israeli concerns that its allies would prioritize the release of their own citizens and then abandon the negotiations. Yet this also increases the incentive for the United States to exercise its influence over Israel to keep its finger off the trigger. (The male Thai and Filipino captives were released independently of the Israeli-Palestinian truce agreement.)

A phased release of the remaining civilian captives in the Gaza Strip and freedom for a greater numbers of incarcerated Palestinians will be relatively easy to organize since the formula and mechanisms to do so already exist. A longer truce also diminishes, though of course does not remove, the likelihood of resumed hostilities. It has been suggested, albeit without much evidence, that global recognition of the sheer scale of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip, and public pressure on Western governments to withdraw their support for Israel's military offensive, can also contribute to this dynamic.

An exchange of military prisoners, requiring the release of all remaining Palestinian prisoners, will require more time and effort, since it will also involve arrangements regarding an indefinite ceasefire, withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, and ultimately broader arrangements concerning both the Gaza Strip and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Qatar, together with Egypt, appear to be already engaged in efforts to extend the truce by at least several days. Given the absence of monitors on the ground, the situation remains highly fragile and could erupt into renewed hostilities at any moment. Deploying a team to monitor the implementation of the truce and thereafter the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza in order to facilitate further negotiations should therefore be a priority. 

Most importantly in this equation, Qatar has established itself as a trusted mediator and also as one that can deliver on the various commitments it has been provided by the parties. It should therefore utilize the political capital it has accumulated in recent weeks to not only facilitate, together with Egypt, the priorities of those with whom it is engaged, but also proactively formulate and promote proposals that can put an end to this devastating war and address the underlying political questions whose resolution is required to prevent the next calamity.