• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Israel cabinet shows divisions over war conduct, hostage policy


Jan 19, 2024


JERUSALEM — A member of Israel’s inner war cabinet 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 own 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 held in Gaza in an interview Thursday night with “Uvda,” Israel’s equivalent of the “60 Minutes” news program.

“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 following the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas which killed 1,200 and took at least 250 hostages: to destroy the 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 also released imprisoned Palestinians. Since the resumption of fighting, Hamas has said there will be no further deal as long as the war in Gaza 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 the extremist group Hamas was the only way forward. The prime minister also doubled down on his opposition to U.S. plans for Palestinian statehood in any postwar scenario, arguing that it jeopardized 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 in recent seen as unviable by many Israelis and Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Asked about Netanyahu’s position on Thursday, 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 others wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — has led to mounting international criticism and sparked skirmishes around 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 heads of the army from launching an attack on the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon in October, 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 was the army chief of staff from 2015 to 2019 and said that 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 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 a rare antiwar demonstration Thursday 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 in Tel Aviv calling for a cease-fire and holding signs saying “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 by Netanyahu, especially his push to overhaul the country’s judicial system, which his critics said paved the way for authoritarian rule.

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

“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 Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “Let’s at least get the hostages released.”

Meanwhile, the public health situation continues to deteriorate in the Gaza Strip according to the United Nations in its latest update, which reported that illness was spreading in the crowded shelters, and 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 said that once aid enters the territory, “our ability to distribute it becomes a matter of life and death.”

He described that he saw 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 overcrowding in shelters.

In the latest sign of the overflow of the conflict into the wider region, the United States on Thursday launched yet another round of strikes at the Houthi militants in Yemen who have been attacking 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 another 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 or the United Arab Emirates.

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


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