FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Two Filipino doctors working for the humanitarian group Doctors without Borders were among the first to be allowed out of Gaza under a breakthrough agreement brokered by Qatar. The agreement makes possible the evacuation of 7,000 foreign citizens from more than 60 countries.

In addition to those holding foreign passports, the deal allows critically wounded Palestinians to exit through the Rafah crossing for medical care on the Egyptian side. Because of Israel’s objections, wounded Hamas militants do not qualify for evacuation.

Over the past three weeks, while heavy fighting was going on, Qatar has used its good offices for negotiations to take place. Qatar is also involved in negotiating the release of the 240 hostages taken by militants last Oct. 7.

The deal that makes possible the evacuation of 7,000 foreigners from Gaza proves that diplomacy can continue to function even as missiles are flying overhead. Other than Qatar and Hamas, other parties to the deal were Egypt, Israel and the US.

Qatar has some influence over Hamas. For years, the wealthy Gulf state delivered vital aid to the Palestinians, including underwriting Gaza’s public payroll. Qatar also hosted the international offices of Hamas.

If Gaza is ever to be rebuilt, the Palestinians will have to turn to wealthy economies such as Qatar for help. Gaza, as we know, is a territory without any agriculture nor industry. It has been maintained entirely by aid flows. In all the years Hamas controlled Gaza, the militants did nothing to help Palestinians help themselves. They dug tunnels and funneled international assistance to build up their armory rather than build a self-reliant economy.

I had the chance years ago to visit the Israel-Gaza border. On the Israeli side, there is lush agriculture. On the Palestinian side, there is only dry soil and teeming masses shamelessly dependent on the flow of dole-outs.

Diplomacy is a scarce commodity in the Middle East these days. The diplomatic line maintained by Qatar is precious.

After Israel bombed a crowded refugee camp a few days ago, Bolivia cut diplomatic relations with Israel. Two other South American countries and neighboring Jordan recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv.

The space for settling the war between Israel and Hamas has shrunk terribly after the outbreak of hostilities. For Tel Aviv, only the complete destruction of Hamas will approximate justice for the horrific attack on Israeli settlements that took 1,400 Jewish lives – the largest number of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust.

While an estimated 11 percent of all structures in Gaza were leveled by Israeli strikes in the aftermath of Oct. 7, Hamas continued to function through their vast network of tunnels. The militants have cynically used the civilian population as human shields. Now they have 240 hostages as additional protection and possible trading chips.

Israel, however, has not allowed the dreadful prospects of urban warfare nor the fate of the hostages to stop their military operation to dismantle Hamas. By Tel Aviv’s reckoning, the intense military pressure brought to bear on the remaining militants will eventually force them to either free or abandon the hostages. At any rate, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not giving them any quarters.

According the latest reports, Israeli commandos have begun to encircle Gaza City and hunt down the militants. They do not seem to be daunted by the prospect of tunnel-to-tunnel fighting. Without food supplies and under constant attack from the air, it is difficult to imagine how the militants could hold out for very long.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution last week calling for a “humanitarian pause” to enable relief to flow in and the injured to be evacuated. Tel Aviv, however, maintains that it is not operationally possible to pause the assault. If Israeli tanks hang around the crowded streets of Gaza without attacking, Hamas militants will simply pick them off with small arms fire and anti-tank weapons.

It is diplomacy that should not pause. Although the space for diplomatic maneuver is reduced to a sliver, it is still an opening. We saw that in the agreement to allow foreign passport holders to evacuate.

Earlier, a handful of elderly hostages were released by the Hamas through diplomatic intervention. The possibility remains open for the wholesale release of hostages should the main protagonists find the conditions mutually acceptable.

At the moment, Hamas is demanding an immediate end to Israel’s armed incursion into Gaza as a condition for hostage release. If Israeli commandos are knocking at the doors of their tunnels, that condition might prove elastic.

In the heat of an intensive military operation, the IDF is not about to squander its momentum. No one will say it explicitly, but it is clear that at this point in the war the safety of the hostages is secondary to the governing objective of destroying Hamas.

This is tragic. But all wars are tragic. All wars incur collateral damage.

There will be more blood in the coming days. Hamas as an organization will likely not survive this war. But the bloodthirsty ideologies rejecting a two-state solution to the problem will likely remain.

For as long as a two-state solution remains elusive, the disparity between the quality of life of Israelis and Palestinians will continue to be glaring. For as long as terrorism remains a threat, Israel will continue to be heavily armed and heavy-handed in treating the Palestinians.

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