Netanyahu denies splits over Gaza war strategy

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Israel’s prime minister, defence minister and army chief insisted on Monday that they were working “in close and full co-operation” as signs grew of discord over the course of the war with Hamas.

Israel has been bombarding Gaza since Hamas militants carried out the deadliest ever attack on the country on October 7. But despite repeated hints from ministers that a ground operation in the enclave was imminent, no such operation has begun 17 days after the start of the war.

In a bid to counteract reports of disputes over invasion plans between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence minister Yoav Gallant and the chief of staff Herzi Halevi, the three men’s offices said there was “complete and mutual trust and a clear unity of purpose” between them.

But despite the declarations of unity, there have been indications of dissent within Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition over the conduct of the war. His far-right ally, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, on Monday demanded the war cabinet be expanded, accusing Netanyahu and its other members of misreading Hamas in the run-up to the October 7 assault.

More than 1,400 people were killed in the attack by Hamas, and more than 5,400 were injured, according to Israeli officials. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has killed 5,087 people, and injured 15,273, according to Palestinian officials, while Israel’s siege of the impoverished enclave has exacerbated the already dire humanitarian conditions there.

Senior Israeli military officials have publicly reiterated in recent days that their forces have completed all preparations for a ground operation and are simply awaiting the order from the government.

But diplomats and people familiar with Israeli thinking said a variety of factors were holding up the ground invasion, ranging from military preparedness, to concerns about what a ground operation would mean for the 222 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and whether it would prompt Hizbollah, the Iran-backed militia in southern Lebanon, to fully enter the war.

“After so many years dealing with routine security missions inside the West Bank, the [Israel Defense Forces] need time to shake off the dust, to train, [and] to complete their equipment provisions,” said one person familiar with Israeli thinking. The occupied West Bank has experienced a surge in violence over the past 18 months, with Israeli forces conducting near nightly raids in the territory following a series of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis last year.

Government officials have said that Israel’s goal is to destroy Hamas and remove it from Gaza, which the militant group controls. But diplomats say that such an operation would be intensely complicated and involve months of combat, and that the scale of this objective was also affecting the speed of Israeli planning. “If the war is long, they need to find a way to limit Israeli casualties,” said one diplomat.

In 2006, Israel launched a rapid ground operation in Lebanon amid talk of “destroying” Hizbollah. But the month-long conflict, waged by an Israeli military ill-equipped and ill-trained after several years fighting Palestinian militants in the West Bank, ended inconclusively.

“These are also the lessons of the Lebanon war,” the person familiar with Israeli thinking said. “The performance of the IDF has to be sustained in the face of public pressure after things inevitably get difficult. It’s better to take your time.”

Officials are also weighing the threat that Hizbollah itself, much better armed and dangerous than in 2006, would enter the conflict from Lebanon once an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza begins. Any such judgment is complicated by the way the Israeli state misread Hamas’ intentions before its attacks earlier this month.

There are also concerns about whether a ground invasion would choke off any further attempts to release the hostages still in Gaza. Hamas released two US hostages last week, the first such move since the crisis began, and officials hope that further releases could yet be possible.

“The view of the various countries involved in negotiations including the US is that if there’s a land invasion it will be near impossible to get the hostages out. The US has conveyed this to Israel. Any escalation that happens will slow it down. Both Israel and Hamas need to stop escalating,” said a person briefed on the negotiations.

Although the US continues to back Israel’s right to defend itself and respond to the Hamas attacks, including through a ground invasion in Gaza, President Joe Biden and top officials in Washington have also been increasingly urging Netanyahu’s government to be cautious about how it carries out any operation. 

The concern from the US is that if Israel moves too quickly and aggressively, it risks broadening the conflict, increasing civilian casualties, jeopardising humanitarian relief efforts, and halting the push to secure the release of US hostages and allow other US citizens to leave Gaza.  

“We talked to the Israelis about what they’re planning. We give them our best advice. It’s important, as we said, not only what they do, but how they do it, particularly when it comes to making sure that civilians are as protected as they possibly can be in this crossfire of Hamas’ making,” Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, told CBS on Sunday. 

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