The mistaken killing of three Israeli hostages by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at the weekend has substantially increased pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept a ceasefire in the war against Hamas.
The Biden administration is exerting maximum pressure to convince the Israeli government that the downsides of its prosecution of the war, particularly the shockingly high Palestinian civilian death toll, now outweigh the potential gains.
During a visit to Israel earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Netanyahu and his cabinet they would have to end the offensive by the new year.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel on the weekend to deliver the same message, emphasising that the US wanted to see results on its demands to Israel to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is currently on a trip to the Middle East, including a stopover in Israel to discuss the “eventual cessation of high-intensity ground operations and air strikes”.
Earlier in the month, Austin warned that Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians risked driving them into the arms of the enemy – replacing “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”.
Finally President Joe Biden, who won enormous kudos in Israel for his visit in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks on October 7, has publicly warned that Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza is losing it international support.
The US, if not Israel (which regards the UN as biased against it) will be concerned at the UN General Assembly vote on December 12 demanding a ceasefire. Though the resolution is non-enforceable, the large majority – 153 of the 190 members – was a clear indication of growing international opposition to the war.
The majority in favour of a similar resolution in October was 120. The US stood out as the only UN Security Council member to vote against the December resolution.
Israeli forces credibility reduced
To underline these messages, a leaked US intelligence assessment has claimed 40-45% of the 29,000 air-to-surface ground munitions Israel has used in Gaza have been “dumb” (unguided) bombs. This disclosure effectively undercuts the Israel Defense Force’s claim that its strikes have been only at proven Hamas targets.
Details of the accidental killing of the three hostages, as they have emerged at the weekend, further reduce the credibility of the Israeli forces’ claims to be operating with full regard to international humanitarian law. The three were holding a white cloth, had their hands in the air and were calling to the soldiers in Hebrew.
An Israeli Defense Force official has said the case was “against our rules of engagement” and an investigation was happening at the “highest level”.
The tragedy has given renewed impetus to the campaign by families of the more than 100 remaining hostages and their numerous supporters. They want the government to prioritise negotiations for the release of the captives over the war against Hamas. Demonstrations took place in Tel Aviv after news of the three hostages’ deaths.
So far Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, are holding firm that the operation to destroy Hamas must continue. Gallant has said that only intense military pressure on Hamas will create conditions for release of more hostages.
Netanyahu likely to continue the conflict
Netanyahu has a number of reasons for continuing the war.
In the inevitable postwar inquiry into the security lapses that led to the horrific Hamas attack on October 7, major blame is certain be laid on him. That inquiry won’t be held while the war proceeds.
But Netanyahu will be aware that his only chance of avoiding the sort of withering criticism that would force him from office is to make good on his pledge to totally eliminate Hamas, and to find and recover the remaining hostages. That will take much more time than Biden seems willing to allow him.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, he cannot yet claim victory on the basis of decapitating the Hamas leadership. The movement’s political ruler in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and its military leader, Mohammed Deif, are still at large. They’re probably somewhere in the vast tunnel network beneath Gaza. If Israel were to capture or kill these two, Netanyahu would be able to claim substantial vindication.
The Biden administration’s pressure is of less concern to Netanyahu. He is practised at staring down US presidents, particularly Democratic ones. In 2009 he defied President Barack Obama’s call for a freeze on settlement building in the West Bank.
In 2015 he even breached protocol by accepting a Republican invitation to visit Washington to address a joint sitting of Congress without calling on Obama.
Within Israel, Netanyahu is helped by the fact that Israelis have only a partial picture of the human toll their country’s campaign is having on Palestinian civilians.
The ABC Global Affairs Editor, John Lyons, who was based in Jerusalem for many years and understands Hebrew, reported after a recent visit to Israel:
[…] most Israelis do not see pictures (on their televisions) of injured Palestinian women and children or the destruction of Gaza into kilometre after kilometre of rubble […] Israelis are watching a sanitised war […] They are bewildered at why the world is increasingly uncomfortable at the high civilian casualty rate.
Resumption of hostage negotiations
That said, Netanyahu has bowed to the hostages lobby by reversing a decision that the head of Mossad, David Barnea, should cease negotiations in Qatar for more hostage releases. Barnea met Qatar’s prime minister in Europe last week. No details were available at time of writing.
But Hamas continues to make demands that Israel would find hard to accept: no further hostage releases until the war ends; and insistence that a deal would involve release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile militants.
In the background, a worry for both Israel and the US is that support for Hamas has risen substantially in the West Bank since the war started.
Polling between November 22 and December 2 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research indicated that backing for Hamas had risen from 12% in September to 44% at the beginning of December. This is shown also in the number of green Hamas flags in evidence when Palestinian prisoners were freed during the pauses in fighting in late November.
The polling even showed that support for Hamas in Gaza over the same period had risen from 38% to 42%.
Netanyahu may get lucky if his forces find Sinwar and Deif. In the meantime, a decision on continuation of the war rests with him.
Lead Image Credit: Photo by Mahmoud Sabbah/Anadolu via Getty Images
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