Israeli Officials Suggest War May Soon Enter New Phase (2024)

Netanyahu says the war’s intensive phase is nearing an end, but fighting will continue.

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The intensive phase of Israel’s war against Hamas is “about to end,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Sunday night interview on Israeli television, although he emphasized that did not mean the conflict was coming to a close.

After the operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city and the latest focus of Israel’s ground offensive, the prime minister said, Israel would keep “mowing the lawn” — a term long used in Israeli security circles to denote the use of force aimed at curtailing the regrowth of militant organizations.

Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks were the latest suggestion by senior Israeli officials that the war could soon enter a period of change.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, was in Washington for meetings with Biden administration officials, which he said would include discussion of “the transition to ‘Phase C’ in Gaza.”

While Israel’s military says it is close to dismantling or seriously degrading Hamas’s military infrastructure, the government has not proposed any clear plan for the administration of Gaza after the war.

Mr. Netanyahu suggested in the interview that a postwar civilian administration would involve local Palestinians, hopefully with the help of moderate Arab nations. The Israeli military would have to maintain overall security control of the enclave, he said.

The prime minister continued to rule out a proposal that has been pushed by the Biden administration: handing over Gaza to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank.

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To get to the “day after Hamas,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “first you have to eliminate Hamas” — reiterating his longstanding position that the armed group be fully eradicated, a goal that many experts say is unattainable.

The prime minister’s remarks came in a 44-minute interview he granted to “The Patriots,” a populist and often divisive nightly talk show on Channel 14, a right-wing Israeli television station that caters to Mr. Netanyahu’s voter base.

Mr. Netanyahu has rarely been interviewed in Hebrew for an Israeli audience since the start of the war. He has faced criticism domestically for granting frequent interviews to American networks while engaging with Israelis mainly through sporadic televised statements and news conferences or via video clips.

Mr. Netanyahu also addressed the stalled cease-fire negotiations during the interview, suggesting at one point that he was willing to strike a “partial” deal for the return of only some of the 120 hostages being held in Gaza — a statement that his office quickly walked back.

The prime minister said he was ready to agree to a temporary truce and the release of some of the hostages, then subsequently resuming the war. That proposition appeared to contradict an Israeli proposal that was approved last month by Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet for a phased deal that would release all the hostages and usher in a permanent cease-fire — a proposal that was endorsed by President Biden and the United Nations Security Council.

But at another point in Sunday’s interview, Mr. Netanyahu said he was committed to bringing back all the remaining hostages, at least a third of whom Israel has said have died in captivity.

In a brief statement issued after the interview, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said it was Hamas that opposed a deal, not Israel, adding: “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that we will not leave Gaza until we return all 120 of our hostages, living and deceased.”

The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, which advocates for the hostages, condemned Mr. Netanyahu’s comments in the interview, saying that failing to advance the cease-fire proposal “abandons 120 hostages and violates the state’s moral obligation to its citizens.”

“The families of the hostages will not allow the government and its leader to back away from their fundamental commitments to our loved ones’ fate,” the group said in a statement. “The responsibility and duty to return all hostages lies with the prime minister.”

Johnatan Reiss and Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.

key developments

Israeli jets hit an UNRWA compound near Gaza City, and other news.

  • Israeli fighter jets bombed an UNRWA compound near Gaza City on Sunday, killing at least eight people, according to Wafa, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency. The compound included a training college that had become an aid distribution site for displaced families, according to Reuters. The Israeli military said the compound was being used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, which Hamas denied. A spokeswoman for UNRWA, the main U.N. agency aiding Palestinians in Gaza, said that more than 500 displaced people sheltering at its school buildings had been killed since the start of the war.

  • A drone attack damaged a merchant vessel 65 nautical miles west of the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah, a British government maritime agency said on Sunday. The agency, United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, said that the crew was safe and that the vessel was proceeding to port. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen has staged dozens of missile and drone attacks against ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November, disrupting global maritime trade.

  • Israel’s military said it killed a militant in an airstrike on Saturday deep inside Lebanese territory as cross-border fire continues to stoke fears of a broader escalation. The Israeli military said in a statement that the target was responsible for funneling weapons to Hamas and to another group, as well as “promotion and execution of terrorist activities against Israel.” Hamas did not immediately comment on the strike. Lebanese state media reported that the strike had hit a village about 25 miles from the Israeli border.

  • The U.N. agency that aids Palestinians said that 69 percent of school buildings where displaced families were seeking shelter in Gaza have sustained direct hits or damage. Israel has repeatedly targeted what it says are Hamas fighters located in school buildings in airstrikes that have also killed civilians.

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Netanyahu doubles down on complaints about the supply of U.S. munitions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel aired new grievances on Sunday over the Biden administration’s supply of munitions for the war in Gaza as his minister of defense arrived in Washington for meetings with senior U.S. officials.

Some Israeli news outlets had portrayed the visit by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, although preplanned, as a “reconciliation” trip aimed at smoothing recent tensions with the country’s most crucial ally. Mr. Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration have been increasingly at odds over Israel’s conduct in Gaza, and Mr. Netanyahu lashed out at the United States last week for withholding munitions.

But on Sunday morning, Mr. Netanyahu doubled down. In remarks broadcast in Hebrew before his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu said he appreciated the Biden administration’s support for Israel through eight months of war, “but starting four months ago, there was a dramatic decrease in the supply of armaments.”

“For long weeks, we turned to our American friends and requested that the shipments be expedited. We did that time after time,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding that he had also tried working behind closed doors.

“We received all sorts of explanations, but one thing we didn’t receive: The basic situation didn’t change,” he continued, adding, “Certain items arrived sporadically, but the munitions at large remained behind.”

There was no immediate comment from the Biden administration about the remarks, which could upstage Mr. Gallant in Washington. They come just days after Mr. Netanyahu released a combative video, in English, excoriating the Biden administration for, as the Israeli leader put it, withholding weapons and ammunition when Israel was “fighting for its life” against Iran and other common enemies.

U.S. officials said at the time that they found the video “perplexing” and did not know what Mr. Netanyahu was talking about. While the Israeli prime minister complained of “bottlenecks,” the Biden administration maintained that it had held up only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs over concerns about their use in densely populated parts of Gaza.

Many Israelis were similarly nonplussed by the prime minister’s decision to pick such a public fight with the White House, with sharp criticism coming even from within his own conservative Likud Party.

Yuli Edelstein, a Likud lawmaker and chairman of the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he was “surprised” by the video. He told Israel’s “Meet the Press” program on Saturday that differences of opinion with the United States should not be handled “via video clips.”

Some Israeli political analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu’s moves might be an effort to intervene in American politics ahead of the November presidential elections and give Donald Trump and the Republicans a stick with which to beat the Democrats. Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress next month.

Other experts, however, have said Mr. Netanyahu’s public affront likely has more to do with Israel’s domestic politics amid increasing signs of strain in his hawkish coalition — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history.

“If there’s any logic to be found in a completely illogical move, one has to see all this through the prism of Netanyahu, with his political survival as his ultimate goal,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu was “pandering to the extremists in Israel in the short term,” he added, “and probably creating damage for the military, for relations with the United States and for the country in the long term.”

Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday defended his actions, saying he went public based on “years of experience and the knowledge that this step was vital to opening the bottleneck,” adding, “I am willing to absorb personal attacks on behalf of the state of Israel.”

He also suggested that his public criticism might be bearing fruit.

“In light of what I have heard over the past 24 hours,” he said, “I hope and believe that this issue will be resolved in the near future.”

His continuation of the spat on Sunday and Mr. Gallant’s travel to the United States come at a critical juncture. Israel’s military has indicated that it wants to wind down the fighting in Gaza and potentially turn its attention to its northern border with Lebanon, after weeks of escalating tit-for-tat strikes between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia backed by Iran.

The Biden administration has been working to try to find a diplomatic solution to avert a full-blown conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah. President Biden has also invested time and political capital endorsing an Israeli proposal for a truce in Gaza involving an exchange of hostages — including some with U.S. citizenship — for Palestinian prisoners. Hamas raised significant reservations about the proposal, and talks have been at an impasse.

Mr. Gallant was invited to Washington by his counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, according to Mr. Gallant’s office. It also said he was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other senior American officials.

“The United States is our most important and central ally,” Mr. Gallant said shortly before his departure. “Our ties are crucial, and perhaps more important than ever, at this time,” he added.

Mr. Gallant and Mr. Netanyahu are themselves rivals who have openly clashed in recent months, even as they jointly oversee Israel’s military operations. As the Israeli prime minister has lashed out at the White House, he also has engaged in increasingly public spats with his military brass and his right-wing coalition partners.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

Isabel Kershner reporting from Jerusalem

The Israeli military says troops tied a wounded Palestinian to a vehicle.

Israeli troops tied a wounded Palestinian to the top of a military vehicle on Saturday morning during an operation in the occupied West Bank, a scene that was captured on video and quickly went viral, prompting outrage and the promise of an investigation by Israel’s military.

Israeli soldiers raided Wadi Burqin, a Palestinian town on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Jenin, on Saturday morning to arrest Palestinians suspected of involvement in militant groups. Jenin, a longtime stronghold for loosely organized armed groups, has experienced repeated crackdowns by the Israeli military over the past few months.

A firefight broke out between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers, the military said. Israeli troops arrested a Palestinian injured in the shooting. The man’s family later identified him as Mujahid Ballas, 22, a resident of Jenin.

“In violation of orders and standard operating procedures, the suspect was taken by the forces while tied on top of a vehicle,” the Israeli military said, adding that such conduct “does not conform to the values” of its army.

Although the Israeli military said it would investigate, human rights groups have regularly criticized the country’s military-justice system, which they say rarely indicts or convicts those accused of inappropriate violence against Palestinians.

The troops handed over the wounded man to the Palestinian Red Crescent for medical care, the Israeli military said. Mr. Ballas had been shot in the leg and arm, and his skin had burns from lying on the vehicle’s hood in the scorching sun, said his father, Raed Ballas.

“These people have no limits,” he said, referring to the soldiers who tied up his son.

Mujahid Ballas was visiting his uncle’s house to play cards during his weekend holiday, his father said. He denied his son was involved in any militant activity, pointing to the fact that the Israeli security services had ultimately released him after the raid.

“If they had the slightest cause — they would not have let him go,” Raed Ballas said.

Violence in the occupied West Bank has increased in the eight months since the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that set off the war in Gaza. More than 500 Palestinians and 12 Israelis have been killed in the territory, according to the United Nations, and thousands of Palestinians have been arrested in near-nightly Israeli raids.

Aaron Boxerman

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Israel says it is investigating a strike that killed dozens near a Red Cross office in Gaza.

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Israel said Saturday it was investigating an airstrike in Al-Mawasi in southern Gaza after the International Committee of the Red Cross said that “heavy-caliber” projectiles fell meters away from an office and residences for the aid group.

The strike killed at least 22 people and wounded dozens of others who were then taken to a nearby field hospital, the Red Cross said.

William Schomburg, the leader of the Red Cross operation in Gaza, did not blame the Israeli military or Hamas but said all parties to the conflict were aware of the Red Cross’s buildings south of a zone designated as “safer” for displaced Palestinians fleeing fighting in Gaza.

“We’re not here to lay blame,” Mr. Schomburg said, adding that his focus was on how to best respond to the episode and how to avoid it from happening again. The Red Cross strives to remain neutral in conflicts in an effort to be able to provide aid to whomever needs it.

The Israeli military said in a statement that it did not carry out a direct attack against a Red Cross facility. It did not say whether it had struck elsewhere in the area.

“The incident will be quickly examined, and its findings will be presented to our international partners,” the military said in a statement on Saturday.

Since the beginning of the war, Israeli military officials have repeatedly accused Hamas fighters of hiding within the civilian population.

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Describing the macabre scene in the aftermath of Friday’s strike, Mr. Schomburg said there were three large explosions that left “piles of dead bodies” and “blood everywhere.” He added that the I.C.R.C. team in Rafah had collected body parts scattered in the area.

“Frankly, it’s nothing like I have ever seen before,” Mr. Schomburg told reporters in an online news briefing Saturday.

Josep Borrell, a top diplomat from the European Union, condemned the attack and called for an independent investigation. He said those responsible should be held accountable.

Adam Rasgon and Anjana Sankar

Israeli Officials Suggest War May Soon Enter New Phase (2024)
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