Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

US Pressuring Israel on War Tactics

U.S. Pressuring Israel on War Tactics in Gaza

 

By Yaakov Kornreich

Shortly before the temporary cease-fire in Gaza was broken by Hamas last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out American new demands on the Israeli army’s resumption of the war in southern Gaza, and then made those demands public.

Blinken began by reiterating Biden’s basic support for Israel’s fundamental goal by declaring that, “Hamas cannot remain in control of Gaza.” But then he added the new conditions by stating “I underscored [to Israel’s leaders] the imperative of 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 also said during a televised press conference in Tel Aviv, “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,” Blinken said. He then added for emphasis that Israel must take “more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.”

He also added a new restriction on Israel’s military operations in Gaza by demanding that it avoid “further significant displacement of civilians inside of Gaza.”

Blinken stated that Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu had agreed to take such steps when the fighting resumed on December 1, after Hamas violated the terms of the temporary ceasefire by refusing to submit the names of additional hostages to be released and by resuming rocket fire aimed at Israeli communities that Friday morning an hour before the cease-fire was due to expire.

The frank tone of Blinken’s remarks stood in sharp contrast to the earlier remarks by Biden and his administration’s officials in support of Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the October 7 attack by pursuing the goal of Hamas’ destruction in Gaza.

BLINKEN AND BIDEN ISSUING ORDERS TO NETANYAHU

More specifically, Blinken and other administration officials publicly demanded that Israel take stronger measures to protect the 1.8 million civilians who heeded Israel’s instructions to flee to safer areas in southern Gaza in order to reduce the number of unintended casualties among them when the fighting and Israeli bombardment resumed. Blinken also said that he put Netanyahu on notice that protecting Gaza’s civilians “means avoiding damage to life-critical infrastructure like hospitals. Intent matters. But so does the result.”

Veteran American Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said that the new “public messaging on the part of the administration from the president on down is if the Israelis are going to continue this campaign, certainly, for any significant duration, they are going to have to deal with two realities. Number one, you are going to have to not attack locations where there are densely populated civilians. And number two, you are going to have to allow the continued surging of humanitarian assistance for the roughly half to two-thirds of Gazans who have now been displaced from their homes, many of whom are in the location where the Israeli [military] intend to operate.”

It is clear that Hamas will try to exploit the new American requirements imposed on the Israeli military’s campaign in southern Gaza. It will increase its efforts to use the 80% of Gaza’s population now living in that area, as human shields to protect them against renewed Israeli attacks. That will make it even more difficult for Israel to root out and destroy the remaining Hamas presence in Gaza while maintaining crucial U.S. support for the war.

Netanyahu is also under significant domestic political pressure from the families of 138 Israeli hostages who are still in Hamas custody, and who fear that the resumption of Israeli military operations in Gaza will become a new obstacle to the hostages’ return. Netanyahu will also have to face the Israeli public’s reaction to a report published last week by the New York Times claiming that Israeli intelligence and military officials had seen the detailed plans for Hamas’ October 7 attack more than a year ago, but failed to take the threat seriously, leaving the civilian population of southern Israel virtually defenseless.

A RARE ISRAELI POLICY CONSENSUS ON FIGHTING HAMAS

On the other hand, there is clearly near-unanimous agreement among the Israeli people that continued Hamas control of Gaza is unacceptable and poses a serious threat to Israel’s existence.

For example, last week, former prime minister Naftali Bennett told CNN that, “we are going to have to do what we need to do [to destroy Hamas] and we’re doing it as best as we can to minimize casualties. But there’s no magic wand and if anyone has a magic wand, let us know and we’ll use it.”

But according to media reports, when Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken during a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet that, “The entire Israeli society is united behind the goal of dismantling Hamas, even if it takes months,” his chilling response was “I don’t think you have the credit [meaning support from President Biden] for that.”

Biden’s support for a continuation of Israel’s war on Hamas after the temporary hostage exchange cease-fire expired also seemed to be wavering last week when he tweeted, “To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek.”

In response to these developments, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board published a blistering critique of what it called “The Blinken-Biden Rules of War for Israel.”

ISRAEL SHOULD NOT BE TREATED LIKE UKRAINE

After citing the inherent contradictions of Biden’s evolving policy on the war in Gaza, the editorial declared, “Israel deserves U.S. support as it topples Hamas, not a repeat of Mr. Biden’s Ukraine treatment: rules, restrictions, and hesitations that push a decisive victory further away.” It then concluded darkly that, “Israelis may find that victory requires calling the President’s bluff.”

Meanwhile, in a more direct and positive response to the new American demands, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer that Israel was publishing a detailed map of Gaza dividing its territory into more than 600 sections that civilians could use to find Israeli-designated safe zones where they could avoid getting caught up in the renewed fighting.

“At the same time as we pursue our campaign against Hamas, we’ll do all that we can to safeguard Gaza’s civilian population, to keep it out of the crossfire between the IDF and the terrorists, and at the same time. . . work (so) that aid enters the Gaza Strip, food, water, medicine, and other things for the people of Gaza to limit the level of suffering,” Regev said, but it was not immediately clear whether these Israeli initiatives would satisfy the new Biden administration demands that Blinken had announced.

Unfortunately, the drumbeat of the Biden administration’s criticism of Israel has not let up. After Biden’s departure, the White House sent Vice President Kamala Harris to the region to deliver its critical message to Israel about how it conducts the war in Gaza once again. After meeting with leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan at the U.N.’s COP28 Climate Conference in Dubai over the weekend, and speaking by phone with Qatar’s emir, Harris declared that “we cannot conflate Hamas with the Palestinian people. Hamas is a brutal terror organization that has vowed to repeat October 7 until Israel is annihilated. No nation could live with such danger.”

But she added, “As Israel defends itself, it matters how. The United States is unequivocal: international humanitarian law must be respected. Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating.”

She then emphasized once more that as Israel “pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians.”

During her comments, Harris repeated previous demands by the Biden administration that the largely dysfunctional and discredited Palestinian Authority (PA) “must be strengthened to eventually assume security responsibilities in Gaza” after the war is over, but that first it somehow “must be revitalized, driven by the will of the Palestinian people, [to] allow them to benefit from the rule of law and a transparent responsive government.”

JOHN KIRBY TELLS THE TRUTH ABOUT HAMAS AND THE PA

However, subsequent comments to ABC News by the Biden White House’s most respected spokesman on Middle East policy, John Kirby, were much more blunt about the PA’s current shortcomings. “Whatever governance looks like in Gaza, it has to be responsive to the aspirations of the Palestinian people and right now the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have that credibly,” he said.

Kirby also placed the blame for the premature end of the cease-fire last week on Hamas’ refusal to release the remaining women and children who are still being held hostage in Gaza. Israel reacted to the Hamas refusal by withdrawing its negotiating team for hostage releases from Qatar.

As a result, Kirby announced that the “[hostage release] “negotiations have stopped. That said, what hasn’t stopped is our own involvement, in trying to get those back on track. …We would like that to happen today.” But now that Israel has restarted its ground attacks in Gaza, and Hamas remains unwilling to release more women and children hostages, a new agreement to a temporary cease-fire to enable more hostage releases seems unlikely for the time being.

WHY HAMAS WON’T RELEASE ALL THE FEMALE HOSTAGES

Meanwhile, there has been growing outrage at the physical and psychological abuse suffered by the women and children while in the hands of the terrorists. This led to a surprising comment by U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller Monday, who suggested that Hamas decided not to release the remaining 18 female hostages it has been holding because it did not want them to tell the world about the horrific treatment they experienced while in captivity.

Miller said, “It seems one of the reasons they don’t want to turn women over they’ve been holding hostage, and the reason this pause fell apart, is they don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody.”

Miller then added that the United States had “no reason to doubt” the reports of atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists against the hostages, and that “there is very little that I would put beyond Hamas when it comes to its treatment of civilians, and particularly its treatment of women.”

In his televised comments Sunday, Kirby also clarified that the U.S. agrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu that the main issue was not the goal of some kind of Palestinian governance over Gaza, but rather the problematic nature of the current PA.

“What [Netanyahu] said is that right now you have an unreformed PA and that is unacceptable to him and that is unacceptable to us too. We don’t believe the PA is in a position right now to be in credible control of governance in Gaza, whatever it looks like,” Kirby declared.

He was referring to the prime minister’s comments the night before at a press conference at the Kirya defense ministry building when he declared that returning Gaza to PA control would be repeating the same mistakes of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created the PA to govern and fight terrorism in the Palestinian-populated portions of the West Bank and Gaza.

NETANYAHU REFUSES TO REPEAT THE OSLO ACCORDS “MISTAKE”

Netanyahu noted that instead of fighting terrorism, the PA “pays murderers” and “educate[s] their children to hate Israel and, to my sorrow, to murder Jews, ultimately resulting in the disappearance of Israel.”

“One thing for sure I am not doing. I am not ready to delude myself into saying that the defective act [empowering the PA] that took place under Oslo through a terrible error” must now take place a second time with the return of a “hostile entity” to Gaza and the West Bank, Netanyahu told reporters.

Netanyahu noted that the U.S. and Israel had acted correctly at the end of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon by expelling Yasser Arafat and about 11,000 terrorist members of his Palestinian Liberation Organization to Tunisia.

Such an outcome, which would end the fighting by sending the Hamas terrorists into a foreign exile, seems unlikely in the current war in Gaza, in part, a senior Israeli official said, because “I don’t see them [Hamas] as rational as the PLO was. It’s a more religious, jihadistic organization connected to the ideas of Iran.”

Netanyahu added that the error was in allowing Arafat and the PLO to return to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, and giving them legitimacy and governing power through the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

“I won’t repeat this terrible mistake of returning [the PA] to Gaza, because the same thing will happen,” the prime minister said, in reference to the violent coup in 2007 in which Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA.

Since then the Palestinian political leadership has split into two [between the PA and Hamas], Netanyahu said, but the ideology that denies Israel’s right to exist is common to both the PA officials who are the civil authorities under the terms of the Oslo Accords in the West Bank and the Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Netanyahu predicted that instead of seeing the kind of democratic governmental reforms that took place in Germany and Japan under U.S. occupation after their defeat in World War II, the opposite would occur in Gaza if “we return the same entity [the PA] — that has not undergone any reform or transformation.”

DISAGREEING WITH ISRAEL’S “GOOD FRIENDS”

“This is what even our good friends are proposing, [but] I think differently and I oppose this. We have to build something different” once the war in Gaza is over, Netanyahu said. He emphasized that Israel must maintain security control over Gaza once Hamas is eliminated, “to ensure no rise of a terror entity for years to come. . . but the internal governance would be Palestinian,” as long as it is not the current PA. That is because “the PA doesn’t fight terror, it supports it. It doesn’t educate for peace, it educates for the destruction of Israel. This isn’t the entity that needs to enter Gaza now,” the prime minister explained.

Needless to say, Mahmoud Abbas, who is now into the eighteenth year of his four-year term as president of the PA, responded in a statement published by the WAFA Palestinian news agency. He said that the only acceptable “political solution” for Gaza is as “an integral part of the Palestinian state” which includes the West Bank and east Yerushalayim under the rule of his Palestinian Authority, and formal membership in the United Nations. He also called for an international conference to set a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

“We continue with our people to remain steadfast in the battle for survival, freedom, and independence. We will not kneel. We will not surrender to the fait accompli. We will not allow the Nakba [disaster] of Palestine in 1948 [meaning the creation of Israel] to be repeated, whatever the circumstances, and no matter how costly the sacrifice,” Abbas declared in the WAFA statement.

During the same press conference at the Kirya, Netanyahu reiterated his pledge to continue the war against Hamas “until the end,” which is “total victory.” He also promised to “do everything possible” to bring back the hostages who remain in Hamas custody, and warned Hezbollah that if it continued to escalate its attacks on northern Israel, it risked triggering a “broad war [that] will destroy Lebanon.”

Netanyahu acknowledged there were serious differences with the U.S. over Israel’s war goals, “two of them for sure,” in reference to the U.S. call for a “revitalized” PA eventually regaining control of Gaza as part of a two-state solution.

“Ultimately this is our war. Ultimately, we have to make the decisions. Ultimately, we do make the decisions,” Netanyahu said. “We try and often succeed in convincing our American friends. I hope and believe that will be the case in the future.”

NETANYAHU DEFENDS THE HOSTAGE RELEASE DEAL

Netanyahu also said that the brief cease-fire with Hamas which enabled the release of 110 hostages was justified despite his initial misgivings about it.

“I was very hesitant in the days before the deal. I asked myself, ‘How can you negotiate with this evil entity, which slaughtered, murdered, dismembered, and burned people — women, children, and babies? A Satan for whom life has no value,’” Netanyahu said.

“But at the same time, it was clear to me that we had a way to rescue. . . many dozens of our hostages. . . from the clutches of this Satan, and I could not relinquish that opportunity.”

Netanyahu also sought to defend his previous responses as prime minister towards rocket attacks from Gaza which repeatedly left Hamas in control after brief periods of heavy fighting.

“We hit Hamas in Operation Pillar of Cloud [2012], Operation Protective Edge [2014], and Operation Guardian of the Walls [2021]. We killed their [military] chief of staff… we killed thousands of terrorists,” Netanyahu responded, and noted that during those periods “we didn’t have either the internal national consensus or the international consensus” that would have enabled Israel to destroy Hamas completely. “[But] now, we will finish the job,” he declared again.

He also emphasized to “our friends around the world. . . [that] you cannot achieve these goals without continuing the ground invasion.”

ISRAEL SHOWS GAZA CIVILIANS WHERE THEY CAN SAFELY GO

Meanwhile, during his Sunday morning ABC interview, White House spokesman Kirby also expressed the Biden administration’s approval of Israel’s effort to give Gaza’s civilians a map showing them exactly where to go to protect themselves during the renewed fighting.

“We believe they have been receptive to our messages here of trying to minimize civilian casualties,” the former U.S. Navy admiral turned National Security Council spokesman said, adding, “There’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that… to telegraph their punches in that way. So they are making an effort,”

During the same televised ABC News interview program on which Kirby appeared, Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer expressed concern over the fact that “everyone is racing forward to try and establish a Palestinian state. The people of Israel do not even understand that. Right now what we have to focus on is destroying Hamas.”

Instead, Dermer predicted that the destruction of Hamas would open the door to a regional peace settlement and that in that context, Israel “will have to figure out [how] we can put ourselves on a path to an ultimate political settlement with the Palestinians…I think we can get there.”

ISRAEL CONFIRMS HAMAS’ GAZA CASUALTY FIGURES

Since the war in Gaza began, there has been a lot of skepticism by Israeli commentators about the accuracy of the casualty estimates issued by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza. However, on Monday the Associated Press and AFP news services cited a statement by an unnamed IDF official confirming the Hamas health ministry’s claim that more than 15,000 people in Gaza, including both Hamas terrorists and civilians, have been killed since the war began on October 7. The IDF official added that Israel believes that 5,000, or about one-third of those casualties were Hamas fighters.

The AFP report quoted the IDF official as admitting at a press briefing that the Hamas casualty figures are “more or less right,” and noted the fact that the use of civilians as human shields was an integral part of Hamas’s “core strategy.”

“Hopefully, [the ratio of civilian to terrorist deaths] will be much lower” in the coming phase of the war, the IDF official added, and then noted that “in the south, because we have doubled the population, operations are much more precise.”

Also on Monday, Israel announced that 180 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were permitted to enter Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah border crossing, carrying food, water, shelter equipment, medical supplies, and the minimum amount of fuel needed to keep Gaza’s essential clean water and sanitation systems running. The announcement eased concerns that the end of last week’s temporary cease-fire would interrupt the flow of such deliveries which are vital to sustain Gaza’s civilian population.

ISRAELI ARMY NOW FULLY ENGAGED IN SOUTHERN GAZA

Meanwhile, the renewed Israeli ground and air assaults launched over the weekend have reached the center of Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, which is where the top members of the Hamas political and military leadership are believed to be hiding out, and the remaining Israeli hostages are being held. It is currently the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since the initial Israeli ground assault on October 27.

The Israeli army was also still heavily engaged this week in firefights with Hamas terrorists in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, both in northern Gaza. As a result, General Yaron Finkelman, the head of the Southern Command, said Tuesday, “This is the most intense day [of battles] since the start of the [ground] invasion, in terms of terrorists killed, the number of engagements and the use of fire from the ground and the air,” including a successful raid on the Hamas general security headquarters in the Jabaliya area.

Speaking to his troops at the Gaza Division in southern Israel, IDF Chief of Staff General Herzi Halevi said that the army’s “move into the south of the Gaza Strip will be no less powerful than [the operations in northern Gaza], and the results will be no less [significant]. The Hamas commanders will meet the IDF everywhere.

“We have the capabilities to [operate] in the most thorough way, and just as we did it with strength and thoroughness in the north of the Gaza Strip, we are also doing it now in the south of the Gaza Strip,” Halevi said.

Halevi also said that “a large part of our security in the maneuver is the very, very close and high-quality cooperation [between the ground forces] and the Israeli Air Force,” which has reportedly carried out 10,000 air strikes on Hamas targets directed by ground troops since the Israeli invasion of Gaza began.

Video footage posted to social media has shown Israeli tanks on the Salah a-Din Road, Gaza’s main north-south highway, between Deir al Balah and Khan Younis.

The New York Times has also reported that satellite photos taken Sunday show formations of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles deployed on the outskirts of Khan Younis in anticipation of what some military analysts believe will be the decisive battle between Hamas and Israeli forces.

HAMAS STILL LAUNCHING MISSILE BARRAGES

However, Hamas remains capable of launching barrages of rockets at major Israeli cities ranging from Tel Aviv in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south. The vast majority of the missiles continue to be intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system before they can land and do significant damage in built-up areas.

The Israeli military has also been using new tactics and high-tech weapons to more effectively penetrate and destroy Hamas’ extensive underground tunnel infrastructure in Gaza and to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians. These include the Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system, which was used in combat for the first time during the Gaza war to shoot down a ballistic fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen at the southern port of Eilat. The Iron Sting precision-guided mortar shell was also used by soldiers in combat for the first time, as well as the Eitan armored personnel carrier (APC), and the Holit and Yated shoulder-fired guided missiles.

ISRAEL’S NEW WEAPONS AND TACTICS

In a broadcast interview with a reporter, the commander of Israel’s tank forces boasted that the new tactics which integrate the use of tanks and ground troops, combined with the reactive armor and the Trophy missile defense system designed to protect armored vehicles have been so effective that Israel has suffered no tanks destroyed since the Gaza war began.

The United States has also enhanced Israel’s military capabilities by supplying it for the first time with a large number of small, high-precision GBU-39 guided bombs, which can be used to carry out successful surgical strikes at targets in built-up areas while minimizing the collateral damage and unintended casualties among innocent civilian bystanders.

At the other extreme, the U.S. has also sent Israel BLU-109 2,000-pound “bunker-buster” bombs designed to penetrate deep underground to attack the extensive Hamas tunnel complex.

ISRAEL CONSIDERING FLOODING THE HAMAS TUNNELS

Finally, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Israel has assembled a system of five large pumps near the middle of Gaza’s Mediterranean coast it could use to flood the vast Hamas network of over 800 tunnels under Gaza with seawater, to avoid the necessity of exposing Israeli soldiers to Hamas fire by sending them underground to clear or destroy the tunnels.

The idea is not new. In 2015, Egypt tried to flood the system of smuggling tunnels operated by Hamas under the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which resulted in complaints from nearby farmers about salt-water damage to their crops.

Israeli and U.S. military officials are currently discussing the basic feasibility of the plan, which is one of the few effective options for permanently disabling the Hamas tunnel system which is several hundred miles long. It is hard to predict its likely impact on Gaza’s already badly degraded environment, including the underground aquifer which is Gaza’s main source of drinking water. There is also the possibility that the flooding could wind up drowning some of the Israeli hostages being held captive by Hamas in the tunnel system.

As one person familiar with the flooding plan told the Wall Street Journal, “We are not sure how successful pumping will be since nobody knows the details of the tunnels and the ground around them. It’s impossible to know if that will be effective because we don’t know how seawater will drain in tunnels no one has been in before.”

According to Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “It’s hard to tell what pumping seawater will do to the existing water and sewage infrastructure. It is hard to tell what it will do to groundwater reserves. And it’s hard to tell the impact on the stability of nearby buildings,” Alterman said.

The collapse of the hostage release negotiations last week and the rare consensus among Israel’s leaders and people on the urgent need to eliminate the threat from Hamas to launch more October 7-style attacks means that the Gaza war will become a costly fight to the finish in the weeks and months ahead. Hashem Yerachem.

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