Hostage exchange talks resume. Multinational naval force to patrol Red Sea. Polls indicate dramatic shift in public opinion.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

UN Security Council works to garner US ceasefire support

Two men walk through the rubble of a building in the dark.
Palestinians walk through the rubble at the site of an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
Credit: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Calls for a ceasefire

The United Nations Security Council was expected to call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza following intense negotiations to secure backing from the United States, as aid groups warned further supplies were urgently needed to address widespread hunger and disease.

The US vetoed a previous Security Council resolution over concerns it would leave Hamas in control of Gaza but was considering altered wording that called for a suspension of fighting to allow supplies of aid. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, more than 56 per cent of Gaza’s residents face “severe levels of hunger”.

As the mounting death toll in Gaza fuelled international calls for a ceasefire, the US urged Israel to conduct more “surgical” operations.

During a visit to Israel, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, backed Israel’s war to remove Hamas from power but said Israel had to try to find ways to “reduce harm to civilians in the battlespace”.

“This is Israel’s operation, and I’m not here to dictate time lines or terms,” he said.

Israel continued to conduct intensive fighting in Gaza this week, including air strikes in the north, which has been largely evacuated, and the south.

UN officials this week criticised Israel’s attacks on hospitals, which are facing severe shortages of supplies. On Tuesday, Israeli troops raided one of the last operating hospitals in northern Gaza, Al-Ahli Hospital, and detained most of its staff.

The World Health Organization said nine out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals were operating but they were only partially functional, and a further four were providing extremely limited services.

Marwan al-Hams, a doctor and the director of a hospital in Rafah, in southern Gaza, told BBC News infections and diseases were spreading, particularly due to a lack of clean water and proper food. “The lack of medicine is catastrophic and there is no space in hospitals,” he said.

Israel has targeted hospitals across Gaza, saying they are used by Hamas to stage attacks and hide command centres – a claim Hamas denies. Israel this week said it found explosives at a clinic and released footage
of a hospital director telling interrogators Hamas’s military wing operated out of the hospital.

Israel declared a war aimed at toppling Hamas in Gaza after an attack on October 7 in which Hamas militants entered Israel and killed 1200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages. As of Thursday, Israel’s attacks in Gaza had killed more than 20,000 people, including at least 8000 children, according to local officials. Israel said it had killed more than 5000 militants in Gaza. More than 130 Israeli soldiers have died during the ground invasion.

Hostage talks

Talks resumed this week between Israel and Hamas over a potential truce and a further exchange of hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader based in Qatar, travelled to Cairo this week for negotiations brokered by Egypt. Separately, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met in Poland with the heads of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and the CIA to discuss a potential deal.

An unnamed Qatari official told Reuters the talks were “positive” but said: “An agreement is not expected imminently.”

During a week-long truce in November, 105 hostages were released by Hamas in return for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Up to 130 hostages are believed to still be in Gaza. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Iran-backed group, released separate videos this week showing Israeli hostages in Gaza.

The latest hostage talks followed an incident in which Israeli troops shot and killed three Israeli hostages who had raised a white flag. The hostages, who were shirtless, emerged from a building in a neighbourhood where Israel had faced heavy resistance. One of the men held a stick with a white cloth. An Israeli official told BBC one of the soldiers felt threatened, declared the men were “terrorists” and opened fire. A search of the building later revealed fabric with scrawled messages saying “SOS” and “Help, 3 hostages”.

The deaths of these hostages have raised further concerns about Israel’s military conduct in Gaza. Herzi Halevi, the head of the Israeli military, said the shooting of the hostages was a breach of the rules of engagement and troops were not permitted to fire at people who surrendered.

Red Sea attacks

The United States this week formed a multinational naval force to prevent missile and drone attacks by Houthis on commercial ships in the Red Sea, as several major firms announced they would suspend transport through the waterway.

The force was created due to a series of attacks by the Houthis, an Iran-backed group in Yemen, on commercial ships it says have links to Israel. Participants in the force include Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain.

Australia has not joined but said it had not been directly asked to participate.

“This was a general request to a range of nations for support there,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told ABC Radio. “Our first priority is in our own region.”

The force will conduct patrols in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. About 30 per cent of global shipping containers – and 10 per cent of the global oil supply – pass through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The attacks have prompted companies such as shipping giant Mærsk and energy firm BP to suspend travel through the area. Ships travelling between Europe and Asia will have to travel around Africa, adding a week or longer to their journeys.

The Houthis have said the attacks will continue.

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, said the group was responding to Israel’s attacks on Gaza and vowed to continue targeting ships “even if America succeeds in mobilising the entire world”.

Public opinion shifts

The Israel–Hamas war is causing dramatic shifts in public opinion that are set to reshape politics in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

A new poll of Palestinians, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found support for Hamas had increased since the war, with 43 per cent of Palestinians supporting Hamas, up from 22 per cent in September, and 72 per cent believing Hamas was correct in launching the October 7 attacks. About 88 per cent of those surveyed want Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, from the secular Fatah party, to resign.

In Israel, support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was falling before the war but has since plunged. A poll released by Channel 12 this week found Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 18 seats in an election, down from the 32 it secured in elections in November 2022, and that his ruling right-wing coalition would win 44 seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from 64. The National Unity party led by Benny Gantz, a former military chief who joined Netanyahu’s war cabinet after October 7, would win 37 seats, up from 12.

In the US, President Joe Biden, who has been criticised by left-leaning Democrats for being too supportive of Israel and by Republicans for being too critical of Israel, also appears to be losing support due to his handling of the war. A poll published by The New York Times this week found 38 per cent of voters trusted Biden to do a better job on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and 46 per cent trusted leading Republican candidate Donald Trump. Just 33 per cent approve of Biden’s handling of the war and 57 per cent disapprove. Asked to name the most important issue facing the US, 34 per cent said the economy or inflation, 10 per cent said immigration, and 1 per cent said the problems in the Middle East. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "UN Security Council works to garner US ceasefire support".

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