Middle East crisis: Israel says it will reduce fighting in southern Gaza

The announcement came seemingly out of the blue on Sunday, when it was first publicized across the Israeli army’s English- and Arabic-language channels: The army would “pause” daytime fighting along a key corridor for humanitarian aid in southern Gaza until further notice.

Amid some immediate confusion about the scope of the pause, a clarification quickly followed, this time in Hebrew and apparently for domestic use. The change does not mean a cessation of fighting in the southern Gaza Strip, the statement said, adding that the campaign in the southernmost city of Rafah continues. Military officials said the daily breaks were intended only to facilitate the increased distribution of food aid in Gaza, where international organizations have issued dire warnings of starvation.

The strange choreography of the message became even stranger when the government implied that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had only learned of the military plan from the news and expressed his disapproval.

But analysts say it is likely that the prime minister was aware of the plan and that each advert was tailored to different audiences. The surprise statements appear to reflect the competing pressures Netanyahu faces as he juggles demands from the Biden administration and other countries with those of his own hawkish government. His far-right coalition partners oppose any concessions in Gaza and he is relying on their support to stay in power.

The new policy relating to the humanitarian corridor – where the army said it would suspend fighting from 8am to 7pm daily – took effect on Saturday, according to military officials. But Netanyahu hinted that he did not learn of the plans until Sunday morning.

Children wait for food in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.Credit…Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

“It’s classic Bibi,” said Amos Harel, a military affairs analyst for the left-wing newspaper Haaretz, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. Like other experts, he said the announcement was unlikely to come as a complete surprise to him, although military commanders had not updated him on the exact timing of what they called a tactical shift.

“He has a mask for every occasion,” Mr. Harel said in an interview. “For the Americans, he must demonstrate that he is doing more to get aid. For Israeli public opinion, they can say “I didn’t know” and opt for plausible deniability.”

A statement released Sunday by an anonymous government official, whose name and office cannot be made public as per protocol, said that when Netanyahu learned of the humanitarian pause, he found it unacceptable. The prime minister was then assured, the statement added, that there would be no changes in military plans regarding the fighting in Rafah, the southern Gaza city, near the corridor that has been at the center of recent operations.

Shani Sasson, a spokeswoman for Cogat, the Israeli agency that oversees policy for the Palestinian territories and which works with international organizations, said the move was intended to help clear a backlog of more than 1,000 trucks that had already been inspected by Israel and were waiting on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing.

“We ask humanitarian organizations to come and collect the aid and distribute it,” Ms. Sasson said. “It’s up to them.”

The military’s move coincided with the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and with uncertainty over the fate of the Israeli ceasefire proposal with Hamas, which includes an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners. Officials said Hamas has called for some unworkable changes to the proposal supported by the Biden administration and approved by the United Nations Security Council.

Palestinians visited the grave of a relative in a makeshift cemetery in Gaza City’s eastern al-Tuffah neighborhood on Sunday.Credit…Omar Al-Qattaa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The “tactical pause” also comes as Israel awaits another international report, expected this month, on food insecurity in Gaza. An earlier report in March warned that half of Gaza’s population faced “catastrophic” food insecurity and imminent famine.

Also looming over them is the threat of arrest of Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on charges of war crimes. They were accused of using hunger as a weapon of war.

Israel has described Rafah as the last bastion of organized Hamas battalions and the military operation as the last major step in the war. The army has now gained control of the corridor along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, long a main conduit for smuggling weapons into the territory.

Israelis are increasingly wondering how the war will develop from here on out and when it will end. The cost for both parties is constantly increasing. At least 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in combat this weekend and an 11th died from wounds sustained days earlier.

About 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7 that sparked the war, and in all, more than 300 Israeli soldiers have been killed in combat since then.

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which makes no distinction between combatants and civilians, more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 this weekend, Gadi Eisenkot, a former military chief and now centrist politician who left the wartime emergency government alongside his party leader, Benny Gantz, last week, accused Netanyahu to put its political needs before those of national security. .

Eisenkot said the influence of one of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of National Security, has been a constant presence in the war cabinet discussions, even though Ben-Gvir is not a member of this decision-making body. .

The funeral of Captain Waseem Mahmoud, killed in combat this weekend, on Sunday in Beit Jann, Israel.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

Ben-Gvir and far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have openly criticized the military leadership during the war and have also vowed to overthrow Netanyahu’s government if it agrees to a ceasefire deal before Hamas is completely destroyed. – a goal that many experts consider unattainable.

Predictably, Ben-Gvir was quick to attack the military’s announcement of the humanitarian pause in a social media post on Sunday, denouncing it as a “crazy and delusional approach” and adding that “the evil fool” who decided ” not to continue in his position.”