HomeWorld NewsDeep divisions emerge in Israeli government over Gaza war conduct

Deep divisions emerge in Israeli government over Gaza war conduct

JERUSALEM — A member of Israel’s war cabinet has accused the prime minister of “selling illusions” that the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held in Gaza could be freed through a ground war, spilling into the open a growing rift among the leadership over the direction of the war.

Gadi Eisenkot, a retired general whose son was killed in the fighting in the Gaza Strip, slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the war and urged a deal to release the rest of the hostages in an interview Thursday night with “Uvda,” Israel’s equivalent of “60 Minutes.”

“I think we need to assert that it is impossible to bring back the hostages alive in the near future without going through a deal,” he said.

Fighting in central Gaza rages on amid hostage families’ growing doubts

The Israeli government has presented two objectives in the war, set off by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in which 1,200 people were killed and about 250 taken hostage: to destroy the extremist group in Gaza and bring home the hostages. But some Israelis, especially the families of hostages, have expressed growing doubts that the two goals are compatible.

Hamas released more than 100 hostages as part of a negotiated week-long humanitarian pause in late November, during which Israel released imprisoned Palestinians. Since the resumption of fighting, Hamas has said there will be no further deals as long as the Gaza war continues — which Netanyahu has said is necessary to bring the hostages home.

Eisenkot’s prerecorded interview followed a televised speech by Netanyahu in which he reiterated that total victory over Hamas was the only way forward. The prime minister also stressed his opposition to a U.S. plan for Palestinian statehood in any postwar scenario, arguing that it would jeopardize Israeli security.

“In any future agreement, Israel must have security control over the entire territory from the sea to the Jordan River,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “This is a necessary condition, and it clashes with the ideas of sovereignty” for the Palestinians.

President Biden has continued to champion a two-state solution to the conflict — an idea seen in recent years as unviable by many Israelis and by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Asked Thursday about Netanyahu’s position, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby responded that “we obviously see it differently,” he said. “We believe that the Palestinians have every right to live in an independent state with peace and security.”

A clear majority of Israelis support the war in Gaza, but the ferocity of Israel’s three-month-long ground and air assault — in which more than 24,760 Palestinians have been killed and more than 62,100 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — has led to mounting international criticism and sparked skirmishes across the region, including in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Eisenkot said on the program that the war cabinet, which includes opposition members like himself, also prevented Netanyahu and the army heads from launching an October attack on the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, which he said would have realized Hamas’s goal of widening the conflict.

“We prevented a very wrong decision,” he said, describing a shouting match in the cabinet. Eisenkot, who was the army chief of staff from 2015 to 2019, has said he bears responsibility for the cross-border attack by Hamas, the bloodiest single day in Israeli history.

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who served as Israel’s back-channel negotiator with Hamas in a 2011 agreement for the release of an Israeli soldier, told The Washington Post that Eisenkot’s comments were the most critical of the war effort “from within the center of Israel’s establishment.”

“He set a new moral standard in Israeli politics,” Baskin said. “It’s really in Eisenkot’s hands right now to see how long he is willing to stay in the coalition.” A majority of Netanyahu’s circle “are behind putting the war effort first and riding on the myth that military pressure will bring the hostages home.”

The organizer of an antiwar demonstration Thursday in Tel Aviv cited Eisenkot as an example of the changing attitudes of public figures toward the conflict.

“The number of people in Israeli society saying we need to stop the fighting to bring back the hostages is steadily growing,” said Alon Lee-Green, head of Standing Together, a group that works for the coexistence of Jews and Arabs.

Some 2,000 people, including Palestinians, turned out for the demonstration, calling for a cease-fire and holding signs that said “Only peace will bring security” and “In Gaza and in Sderot, children just want to live.”

Lee-Green said it was the largest such demonstration since the conflict began and took place despite police efforts to prevent it.

Before Oct. 7, Israelis were deeply divided over Netanyahu, especially his push to overhaul the country’s judicial system, which his critics said would pave the way for authoritarian rule.

The country swiftly united after the Hamas attack, which Israelis saw as existential, and the media covers little of the civilian cost in Gaza or any criticism of the war. But concern among Israelis over the fate of the hostages has continued to dominate public discourse, alongside growing pressure on Netanyahu to capture or kill top Hamas leaders and lay out a postwar strategy.

“We understand today that Hamas is not going to disappear, certainly not in the coming year, and rocket fire is going to continue to one degree or another,” leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “Let’s at least get the hostages released.”

Meanwhile, the public health situation continues to deteriorate in Gaza, according to the United Nations’ latest update, which reported that illness was spreading in crowded shelters and that Gazans, including 60,000 who are pregnant, have limited access to medical care.

Ted Chaiban, deputy chief of UNICEF, said in a statement Thursday after a three-day visit to Gaza that once aid enters the territory, “our ability to distribute it becomes a matter of life and death.”

He said he witnessed on his trip “some of the most horrific conditions I have ever seen. Since my last visit, the situation has gone from catastrophic to near collapse.”

The Gaza Health Ministry on Thursday reported more than 8,000 cases of viral hepatitis linked to crowding in shelters.

In the latest sign of the conflict widening, the United States on Thursday launched another round of strikes on the Houthi militants in Yemen, who have been attacking marine shipping linked to Israel or the United States in protest of the Gaza war.

Kirby said U.S. jets targeted anti-ship missiles that were about to be launched. The Houthis, however, still fired on a U.S.-owned ship later in the day in its third attack on commercial vessels in three days.

The movement’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdusalam, told Reuters on Friday that the attacks would remain focused on blockading Israel and retaliating against U.S. strikes, but would not target past foes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Stern reported from Tel Aviv. Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.

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