The Israel-Hamas Conflict is at an Inflection Point

May 24, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelGazaHamasBenjamin NetanyahuJoe Biden

The Israel-Hamas Conflict is at an Inflection Point

Ultimately, Israel’s maximalist demands for a total defeat of Hamas were never achievable.


The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas sits at a critical point as Tel Aviv conducts its military operation in Rafah. In this context, U.S. president Joe Biden and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are increasingly feuding in the public space, prompting Washington to utilize progressively harsher tools to prevent Israel’s Far Right government from conducting increasingly rogue actions in Gaza. Ultimately, there are real risks that the current situation could spiral out of control—something Western leaders must consider and anticipate to avoid a potential slaughter with long-term implications.

Rapid Geopolitical Shifts


There is still a possibility that leaders can prevent this outcome through the ongoing ceasefire talks between Hamas and Israeli negotiators. On May 6, Hamas accepted a ceasefire deal that Israel previously approved with the blessing of leading mediators—namely the United States, Egypt, and Qatar. The group’s decision startled Tel Aviv, drawing accusations of foul play as Israeli leaders claimed Hamas agreed to a different deal. 

Anonymous officials assert the deals are nearly identical, with U.S. officials arguing there is space for an agreement while downplaying the differences within the framework and defining Hamas’s announcement as a “counterproposal” that is very reachable. Conversely, Israeli officials still claim the deal has unacceptably wide gaps. As such, Tel Aviv continues to view an offensive into Rafah—supposedly Hamas’s last major stronghold in Gaza—as the only way to strengthen its hand in negotiations or, at a minimum, save hostages while destroying the armed group. Some Israeli officials even accused the United States of acting in bad faith by not informing them about the deal Hamas approved. Ultimately, the Israeli and Hamas texts are not all that different, with U.S. officials claiming gaps can “absolutely be closed.”

That accusation is ironic considering Israel’s effort to spoil negotiations since agreeing on the proposal sent to Hamas in late April. Netanyahu is leading this charge, claiming on April 30 that Israel would enter Rafah “with or without a deal” to achieve “total victory.” Such statements threaten the possibility of any future agreement, especially amid ongoing negotiations, as Hamas reviewed the proposed text in late April. The Israeli far-right’s influence within his government also shines through, with ministers like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich threatening to torpedo Netanyahu’s coalition should Israel not follow through with its total war strategy.

Unsurprisingly, events following the Hamas announcement spiraled, reflecting ongoing Israeli intransigence while further undermining the chances for an agreement, even if the armed group is operating in bad faith. On May 5, Hamas conducted a missile strike on Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) near Gaza’s Kerem Shalom border crossing in the southeast, killing four IDF troops and closing the site. In response, Israel invaded eastern Rafah, capturing its crossing along the Egypt-Gaza border while ordering a mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from eastern and central Rafah. Local reports suggest ongoing fighting in the area constituting the evacuation zone—preventing aid from traversing the Kerem Shalom crossing due to the lack of personnel on the Gaza side to move aid.

This situation prompted Washington to publicly block arms shipments to Israel, with U.S. officials reiterating Biden’s red line, which rejects any major offensive into Rafah or any military operation that fails to consider civilian protection standards properly. A longstanding policy for team Biden, U.S. officials have liaised with Israeli decision-makers for months to establish a plan that allows Israel to take out any remnants of Hamas in Gaza while following international humanitarian law. These interactions reportedly resulted in disagreements.

Biden is threatening to block more arms shipments should Israel invade Rafah, prompting U.S. and Israeli officials to push a narrative that the Rafah operation has either not started or was scaled back and refocused. Yet, ironically, an invasion of Rafah is already underway, with Israel committing more troops to the area. 

As such, it will be crucial to monitor Israeli movements. Reports suggest that Tel Aviv will keep the Rafah border crossing closed for the duration of their operation. This indicates that the IDF is prepared to level the city while directly ignoring Biden’s red line by limiting aid through Gaza’s most important crossing, forcefully evacuating over a million Palestinians to Al-Muwasi and other parts of south-central Gaza while conducting a full military operation in Rafah.

An Inflection Point

In this context, negotiations closed in Cairo without a deal, although lower-level negotiators are supposedly still working to achieve an agreement. Such efforts are critical at this stage as several pressure points are converging on the primary stakeholders directly or indirectly involved in the fighting. This scenario has been building for months, producing a major inflection point for the current Israel-Hamas war.

Of these stakeholders, Netanyahu currently faces the most pressure. His right flank is demanding blood and a whole military operation in Rafah, alongside an end to humanitarian aid to Gaza, while threatening to take down his government if he fails to comply. This outcome could have serious implications for his political survival and personal freedom as his party faces incredibly poor polling while he fights multiple criminal corruption trials. Thus, he continues to direct the war with a skew toward their political interests, primarily because he shares them.

Yet he also faces pressure from Israel’s most prominent supporter—the United States. Biden does not appear to be bluffing about limiting arms sales, yet Washington’s effort to pass $26 billion in aid for Israel on April 24, coupled with the substantial aid flows since October 7—totaling at least 100 arms transfers and likely many more—has likely reduced Israel’s concerns about this pressure point. 

Indeed, it is difficult to argue Washington is implementing a serious policy change on the Israel file today, given its deep collaboration with Israeli leaders throughout the war, let alone Biden’s peculiar devotion to the country. Still, such moves establish a degree of pressure, even if just a political signal. The question is how far Biden will go, especially to honor his red line on a Rafah assault.

That outcome is ultimately impacted more by U.S. domestic politics than Israeli actions, as U.S. support for Tel Aviv throughout the worst parts of its Gaza invasion has shown. Ongoing, albeit reduced, university protests across the United States compound progressive and Arab American electoral initiatives designed to heap pressure on Israel, U.S. companies and institutions, and ultimately the U.S. political leadership by threatening to withhold support for those entities via protest votes and boycotts, divestment, and sanctions actions.

Meanwhile, Hamas faces an increasingly dire situation in Gaza and abroad. Rumors continue to hint at a potential Hamas expulsion from Qatar—a situation that will be compounded by the recent International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to submit arrest warrants for Hamas and Israeli leaders. Doha is facing political pressure for hosting the group and other media outlets like Al Jazeera that air critical coverage of Israel’s military operations even as Qatar mediates between them and Israel to achieve a ceasefire deal.

Its standing inside Gaza isn’t any better, largely relegated to underground tunnels and sporadic guerrilla warfare in previously cleared areas—telltale signs of a potentially disastrous insurgency for the so-called “day after” the war. Just how many Palestinian lives Hamas is willing to sacrifice remains to be seen, while Israel’s approach of militarily pressuring the group has not worked so far.

Thus, the long-running game of chicken between these three major stakeholders could be nearing its end, especially given the ICC ruling and increased Western frustration with Israel. To be sure, this situation still requires one or more parties to blink—something only the United States appears to be leaning into with its pressure on Israel as it is incentivized to end the conflict and its associated political headaches. Conversely, Israel and Hamas are both focused on their respective political and literal survival, further complicating matters. 

Indeed, Netanyahu’s obvious efforts to tank the late-April deal sent to Hamas as it reviewed the text are important as the Israeli premier promised to continue fighting Hamas regardless of a ceasefire deal. Such rhetoric, especially concerning Netanyahu’s promise not to honor a ceasefire agreement, seriously threatens any further ceasefire efforts, reflecting his disinterest in ending the fighting. 

This is, of course, a political consideration and not a humanitarian or military one. Rather, it is a case that was arguably made in advance of the ceasefire proposal to Hamas before May 6. Israel refused to send a delegation to Cairo before Hamas’s announcement on May 3 as the talks were reportedly collapsing, swearing to start a Rafah operation. In this context, there is a strong chance that Israeli leaders expected and hoped for Hamas to refuse the agreement, ultimately caught by surprise as they were preparing to hit the southern Gaza City. If anything, their lack of presence led to confusion over the proposal’s details.

Ultimately, Israel’s maximalist demands for a total defeat of Hamas were never achievable, whereas Hamas’s goal of a prisoner exchange and efforts to diminish Israel’s international standing have largely succeeded. Tel Aviv appears rudderless, driven by vengeful inertia that Washington, with its decades of foreign policy disasters constituting the so-called “War on Terror,” appears intent on only superficially espousing frustrations. Whether Biden accepts a reality in which a major U.S. partner is working against its interests, the international system and peace hangs in the balance, with the coming weeks crucial for ending the conflict and defining his presidency.