Calls to protect civilians. Focus on Iran’s role. Early warning ignored. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Israel pushes into southern Gaza after ceasefire collapses

A woman stands inside a makeshift shelter in Rafah in southern Gaza, as displaced Palestinians flee the ongoing Israel–Hamas conflict.
A woman stands inside a makeshift shelter in Rafah in southern Gaza, as displaced Palestinians flee the ongoing Israel–Hamas conflict.
Credit: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli forces enter south Gaza 

Israel expanded its ground invasion this week and began pressing into the densely populated southern section of Gaza after a seven-day truce with Hamas collapsed.

As the renewed fighting slowed the flow of aid and caused further evacuations in Gaza, relief groups warned residents and refugees who had fled to the south of the enclave had no safe place to go. About two million of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have crammed into Gaza’s south after Israel ordered evacuations from the north. Israel believes the Hamas leadership – including its two senior leaders in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif – are hiding in tunnels beneath Khan Younis, a city in the south.

Lynn Hastings, a United Nations coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said this week a lack of water, sanitation and nutrition in Gaza had increased the likelihood of a public health disaster. About 200 aid trucks entered Gaza every day during the truce – down from 500 before the war – but only 100 a day, and sometimes fewer, entered this week.

“If possible, an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold, one in which humanitarian operations may not be able to respond,” Hastings said in a statement.

The truce, which was extended twice, collapsed last week after an impasse over plans to release more Israeli hostages from Gaza. Israel said Hamas had failed to deliver a list naming women to be released. Hamas said it had released all the women it held and now held only men. 

A Hamas official, Saleh al-Arouri, told Al Jazeera further hostages would be released only as part of a deal to end the war. Hamas has released 110 hostages but about 130 are still being held by Hamas and other militant groups.

“There are no negotiations now on the truce,” al-Arouri said. “There will be no prisoner exchange until the aggression ends and there is a comprehensive and definitive ceasefire.”

 US, UN pressure Israel 

As Israel launched its offensive in southern Gaza this week, United States officials called on the military to change its tactics to avoid a repeat of the deaths and destruction that occurred in the north. 

The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, who led the campaign in Iraq against Daesh, also known as ISIS, said in a speech last weekend that a failure to protect civilians in Gaza would boost support there for Hamas and “replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”. 

“Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas,” he said. “And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians … You can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

An Israeli government spokesperson, Eylon Levy, told reporters on Tuesday the military was committed to dismantling Hamas but would consider “constructive feedback” on how to minimise casualties.

“We didn’t pick the battlefield; Hamas picked the battlefield,” he said.

On Thursday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that for the first time in his tenure he was invoking article 99 of the organisation’s charter to push the Security Council to declare a ceasefire. In a letter to the council’s president, he wrote that the “international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis”, which he called a “humanitarian catastrophe”. The rarely used article allows the secretary-general to raise issues that threaten international security with the council, which can impose binding resolutions. Israel’s UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, accused Guterres of a “new moral low”, saying a ceasefire would enable Hamas to remain in power.

Israel declared war on October 7 after Hamas launched attacks in southern Israel that killed 1200 people, mostly civilians. As of Wednesday, Israel’s offensive had killed 16,248 people in Gaza, including about 11,000 children and women, according to local officials. Israel says more than 5000 of those killed in Gaza were Hamas militants. 

US officials are also pressing Israel to develop a strategy for administering Gaza when the fighting ends. The White House wants to hand control to a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority (PA) – which administers the West Bank – but the move was opposed by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused the PA of promoting terrorism. Many Palestinians also oppose the PA, believing it is corrupt and supportive of Israel’s security apparatus in the West Bank.

Safwan Jamal, a 28-year-old resident of Gaza, this week told The Washington Post the focus there was on ending the war but that Palestinians should then be entitled to choose who governs them. “While Hamas may be somewhat reckless, the Palestinian Authority is riddled with corruption and unfit to govern us,” he said. “We are oppressed, and those willing to help us must [allow] the Palestinian people to choose their leadership, whether it be Hamas or others.”

Regional conflict 

The US this week blamed Iran for enabling a series of missile and drone attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea as the war in Gaza led to heightened tensions across the Middle East.

The latest attacks, by the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen, targeted at least three foreign ships. The US military said it believed the attacks were “fully enabled by Iran”.

A Houthi spokesperson said it attacked two ships, saying the vessels were Israeli and it would conduct such attacks until Israel ended its hostilities in Gaza. Two of the ships had no connection to Israel and a third had links to a British resident of Israel.

Elsewhere, Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group in Lebanon, launched mortars and missiles at northern Israel this week, prompting Israeli air strikes in southern Lebanon. Israel also launched a strike last weekend near Damascus in Syria, reportedly killing two Hezbollah members and two Iranian military officials who were working as advisers. 

An Iranian spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, said on Monday Iran planned to respond to the attack.

“No action against Iran’s interests and our advisory forces in Syria will go unanswered,” he said.

Hamas plans emerge

Last year, Israeli intelligence came across a roughly 40-page Hamas battle plan that outlined a blueprint for overwhelming Israeli defences along the Gaza border and then allowing gunmen to pour into southern Israel in paragliders, on motorcycles and on foot. But, according to a report in The New York Times, Israeli military leaders dismissed the plan as “imaginative” and believed Hamas lacked the capability to achieve it. On October 7, Hamas’s attack followed the plan, but Israel was taken by surprise and suffered the deadliest day in its history.

“What could have been an intelligence coup turned into one of the worst miscalculations in Israel’s 75-year history,” the newspaper reported.

Other details emerged about the extent of Hamas’s planning this week from phones, laptops and notebooks that Israel said it seized from Hamas militants during the war. According to the documents, Hamas fighters had guides to hostage-taking and Arabic-to-Hebrew phrasebooks, as well as detailed maps of locations in central Israel, suggesting Hamas planned to reach beyond southern towns and kibbutzim.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Israel pushes into southern Gaza after ceasefire collapses".

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