As expected, war has returned to the Gaza Strip following a tenuous week-long truce during which 81 Israeli and 24 foreign hostages were freed from captivity in exchange for the release of 210 Palestinian prisoners and the renewed flow of humanitarian supplies into that battered coastal enclave.
Hamas still holds 137 hostages, of whom 126 are Israeli citizens.
Prior to last week’s truce, which was arranged by Qatar, Egypt and the United States, Hamas released four hostages and the Israeli army rescued one hostage. Since then, the corpses of five Israeli hostages have found in Gaza.
On December 1, Israel resumed military operations after Hamas failed to produce a list of new hostages to be released, launched a barrage of some 50 rockets toward Israeli territory, and claimed credit for a terrorist attack in Jerusalem on November 30 which claimed the lives of three Israelis.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed Hamas for the breakdown of the pause, accusing it of reneging on its commitments.
Spelling out Israel’s war aims, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said, “We will continue to strike (Hamas) until we achieve (our) goals: Dismantling Hamas, eliminating its military capabilities, and returning the hostages to their homes. We will continue this mission until … victory over Hamas.”
The Israeli government had announced it would adhere to the truce until Hamas stopped releasing captives, at which point it would resume its offensive, which began on October 7 after waves of Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 Israelis and foreigners in southern Israel in a massive attack that caught Israel woefully unprepared.
No one realistically thought that the pause would endure, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having insisted all along that the war would continue.
“There is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end,” he said the other day. “This is my policy. The entire security cabinet is behind it. The entire government is behind it. The soldiers are behind it. The people are behind it — this is exactly what we will do.”
On November 29, the commander of the Israeli armed forces, General Herzi Halevi, announced he had approved the next phase of the battle plan. “We know what needs to be done, and are ready for the next step,” he said.
The big question now is how Israel will conduct the next phase of the war, particularly in southern Gaza, where the majority of Palestinian civilians have sheltered in place after Israel’s invasion of northern Gaza.
The United States, Israel’s chief ally, does not oppose a resumption of its offensive to eradicate Hamas’ military capabilities and remove it as the governing authority in Gaza. Nor has Washington called for a ceasefire. But the Biden administration has urged Israel to operate with much greater restraint and precision so as to minimize civilian casualties.
“The way Israel defends itself matters,” said Blinken yesterday during his fourth visit to Israel since October 7.
In an unmistakable message, Blinken said, “I underscored the imperative — for the United States — that the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the south.”
Blinken told Netanyahu that Israel must establish safe zones in Gaza so that harm does not come to Palestinian civilians.
“I made clear that before Israel resumes major military operations, it must put in place humanitarian, civilian protection plans that minimize further casualties of innocent Palestinians,” he said at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “That means taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians, including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza where they can be safe and out of the line of fire.”
Israel, too, must ensure that Palestinians are not massively and permanently displaced, and that “life-critical infrastructure,” such as hospitals power stations and water treatment plants, are left intact.
Blinken claimed that Israel agrees with this approach, though Israel will surely find it infinitely harder to achieve its military objectives if it hews to these circumscribed parameters.
At the same time, Blinken reiterated that Hamas uses civilians and civilian infrastructure as human shields and urged Hamas to surrender.
More importantly, he reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006. As he put it, “We will continue to support Israel’s efforts to do everything possible to ensure that Hamas does not repeat the horrors of October 7.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby underscored this point in Washington yesterday. “We continue to believe that Israel has a right and responsibility to go after Hamas,” he said. “They have said very clearly that when these pauses are over, they intend to go back at it. As they make that decision, they’ll continue to find support from the United States in terms of the tools and capabilities, the weapons systems that they need as well as the advice and the perspectives that we can offer in terms of urban warfare.”
Nonetheless, the Biden administration continues to express concern at how Israel wages this war, the fifth Gaza conflict in fifteen years. It is abundantly clear that the United States is clearly pressuring Israel to abide by the international rules of war to minimize civilian deaths.
So far, upwards of 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, 30,000 have been injured, and more than one-third of the residential buildings in northern Gaza have been destroyed.
The United States has been careful not to issue public diktats to Israel. As Blinken said yesterday, “How Israel does it, those are decisions for Israel.”
For all practical purposes, however, the Biden administration has warned Israel to conduct its operations with the utmost care so that most civilians are spared, to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches Gaza, and to ensure that nominally civilian sites are not bombed.
Another source of tension between Israel and the United States is the duration of its military campaign in Gaza.
Yesterday, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken that the dismantlement of Hamas may take months. Blinken replied that Israel’s window of opportunity to achieve its war aims may come down to weeks rather than months due to the pressures of public opinion.
Calls for an immediate ceasefire, particularly in the Arab world, have been heard since the beginning of the war.
And while the Biden administration has not demanded a truce, at least until now, some Democratic Party politicians have said that U.S. military aid to Israel, which is in the range of almost $4 billion annually, should be sent only if Israel obeys international law.
One of these figures, Senator Chris Van Hollen, said recently that Biden should “secure express assurances” from the Israeli government … to reduce the unacceptable level of (Palestinian) civilian casualties … and to commit to full cooperation with our efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.”
Biden has requested a $14.3 billion aid package for Israel, but he told reporters a few days ago that the concept of conditional aid to Israel is a “worthwhile thought.”
The Republicans do not appear to be that conflicted. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, contends that the Democrats should not “tie the hands of Israeli soldiers as they defend their country … Israel deserves the time, the space and resources to restore its security, and I will stand by our ally 100 percent.”
A minority of Jews in the United States support the Democratic Party position.
In an open letter to Biden several days ago, Americans for Peace Now wrote, “Aid to Israel is important, but it is imperative that assistance provided to Israel aligns with our nation’s values and policy priorities. We have taken note of prominent Democratic figures advocating for the conditioning of aid, and we appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this matter. As you rightly stated, conditioning aid is a ‘worthwhile thought.’ We agree, and we want you to know that we support conditioning aid to Israel.
“Accountability regarding Israel’s use of U.S.-provided equipment is vital, and we must ensure strict adherence to both U.S. and international laws, with a particular emphasis on protecting civilians. We urge you to place key guardrails and conditions on U.S. security assistance to Israel in order to guarantee that Israeli military operations supported by U.S. tax dollars are conducted within the bounds of American and international humanitarian law, including measures to minimize civilian casualties.
“Assistance to Israel is a powerful tool that can and should be used to ensure the long-term security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. We urge you to consider conditioning U.S. aid to Israel not only in relation to Israel’s conduct in Gaza but also based on other actions by Israel that jeopardize the two-state solution.”