Israel Isn’t Backing Down From Plan to Destroy Hamas

As Arab leaders lined up to condemn a deadly explosion that fueled concerns a humanitarian crisis is escalating in Gaza, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israel will push ahead with its plans to target militants in the territory.

(Bloomberg) — As Arab leaders lined up to condemn a deadly explosion that fueled concerns a humanitarian crisis is escalating in Gaza, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israel will push ahead with its plans to target militants in the territory. 

Hundreds of Palestinians were killed by the blast at a Gaza City hospital Tuesday night. The Israeli military released videos and other evidence to show that what damaged the hospital was an errant rocket from Islamic Jihad, a radical militant group operating in Gaza. 

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the US and European Union, said the catastrophe at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital was caused by an Israeli air strike – a claim that resonated in the Middle East, where several Arab leaders quickly condemned Israel. Arab leaders canceled the summit that had been planned with US President Joe Biden in Jordan.

“The objective is clear and remains unchanged — to dismantle Hamas — and that is what we are going to do,” Ophir Falk, a close aide to Netanyahu, said by phone. 

One piece of evidence the Israelis provided to journalists is a recording, which Bloomberg cannot verify, of two Hamas operatives saying both that the explosion had produced local shrapnel and that the strike came from behind the hospital rather than the air.

“Based on what I’ve seen that appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden said of the blast, speaking to the Israeli prime minister after he landed in Tel Aviv Wednesday. 

The US president had planned this visit with three goals: to show support for Israel after the Oct. 7 massacre of 1,400 civilians by Hamas operatives, to deter Iranian-supported Hezbollah from entering the fray, and to bring the Arab world round to his point of view. 

Shortly after the explosion, the third goal ran into trouble. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned to the West Bank and Jordan’s King Abdullah II canceled the summit to be held in Amman.

Read More: Hospital Blast Kills Hundreds as Israel, Hamas Trade Blame

Further afield, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, called for the immediate protection of civilians and health care, and for Israel’s order for the evacuation of 1.1 million people to be reversed. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also condemned the strike and called for action to “stop Israel’s unprecedented brutality in Gaza.” 

“We are trying to get the truth out quickly about what happened at the hospital,” said Netanyahu’s aide.

Read more: Biden Seeks to Salvage Israel Trip After Gaza Hospital Blast

With Biden in the region, the question is how much Israel might be rethinking its approach. 

From the available evidence, the answer is not much. A record 400,000 reservists have been called up, a military operating center has been established next to Gaza, warplanes are making repeated sorties over the territory, and Israel is still ordering people to leave their homes. The goal, all officials say, is to crush Hamas’s ability to carry out a repeat of anything like what happened on Oct. 7.

Still, the parade of top officials to Israel — Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and soon French President Emmanuel Macron — may mean a delay to any ground operation.

Mistaken Deaths

The explosion at the Gaza City hospital may have threatened the plan if caused by an Israeli error, a top Israeli official said by phone, asking not to be named. There are precedents in 1996 and 2006, when Israel was fighting in Lebanon. In both cases, a large number of civilians were mistakenly killed by Israeli forces, creating pressure on Israel to alter its plans.

The official said the fact that Israel has been able to show that it wasn’t at fault on Tuesday night means the event won’t become a turning point. It will have a ripple effect, he said, because Hezbollah may use what happened at the hospital as an excuse to get involved. But Arab leaders now know, he said, that Israel wasn’t responsible and that will affect how they behave behind the scenes. 

Israel has been purposefully vague about its ground invasion. Its military spokesmen say that while they are preparing for one, no order has been received to carry it out. They also note that a ground operation can be many things, from a massive D-Day-type incursion, to specialized commandos heading in and out from specific targets over a protracted period.

For more on the Israel-Hamas war, click here.

“The target of the war is to take out Hamas ISIS terror sovereignty,” said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman. “We will use all the measures we need when the time comes at the right time to do that.”

What it means to destroy Hamas, which is three decades old, was born from within Palestinian society and has run Gaza for 16 years, is far from clear. Internal Israel discussions have spoken of a war that could last months or even longer. 

Such a time frame could incur a political advantage for Netanyahu. In Israel he’s widely blamed for the security breach that permitted thousands of Hamas operatives to penetrate civilian and military sites, wantonly killing for hours, and taking about 200 hostages back into Gaza.

Once the war is concluded, it is likely that an official investigation will target the failures and point blame at Netanyahu and top aides. The longer the war goes on, the more such a probe would be delayed.

Israel is still in a state of shock over Oct. 7, both at the sophistication and sadism of the attacks but also at the failures of its own, once-vaunted security system. This has created a kind of determination to show it’s willing to suffer losses to demonstrate strength to its enemies. Israel is afraid its citizens will leave if the risk of another attack like this remains, said one top military officer, who asked not to be identified discussing confidential matters. 

The contract between the state and its citizens requires Israel to remove that threat, the person said. And given what has been learned about the years of training that went into the assault, Israel’s top military echelons believe the threat is ongoing and they must end it. 

Military spokesman Daniel Hagari made a similar point on Wednesday: “We have to fight — we cannot live next to our borders with Hamas ISIS governance that threatens our civilians and do massacres where you rape women, behead bodies, kidnap babies.”

–With assistance from Galit Altstein and Henry Meyer.

(Adds details, Biden video)

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