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Deep divisions emerge in Israeli government over Gaza war strategy

Protesters carry signs and photos of hostages as they march Thursday in Tel Aviv to call for a hostage deal. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM — A member of Israel’s war cabinet has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “selling illusions” that the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held in Gaza could be freed through a ground assault, exposing publicly a growing rift among leaders over the direction of the campaign against Hamas.

Retired Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff whose son was killed in the Gaza Strip in December, slammed Netanyahu’s approach to the war and urged a deal to release the rest of the hostages in an interview Thursday night with “Uvda,” an Israeli program similar to “60 Minutes.”

“I think we need to assert that it is impossible to bring back the hostages alive in the near future without going through a deal,” said Eisenkot, an opposition minister without portfolio in the cabinet.

Fighting in central Gaza rages on amid hostage families’ growing doubts

Hamas-led fighters overran Israeli villages in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage, authorities here say. The government has responded with a military campaign that has two objectives: to destroy the militants in Gaza and bring the hostages home.

But some Israelis, including family members of hostages, have expressed growing doubts that the two goals are compatible.

During a week-long humanitarian pause in late November, Hamas freed more than 100 hostages in exchange for the release of more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Hamas has said there will be no further deals while the Gaza war continues. Netanyahu has said the war is needed to bring the hostages home.

Eisenkot’s prerecorded interview was broadcast after a televised speech by Netanyahu in which he reiterated that the only way forward against Hamas is total victory. Netanyahu also stressed his opposition to Palestinian statehood after the war, saying it would jeopardize Israeli security. That brings his government into conflict with the United States, its closest ally.

“In any future agreement, Israel must have security control over the entire territory from the sea to the Jordan River,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “This is a necessary condition, and it clashes with the ideas of sovereignty” for the Palestinians.

President Biden continues to champion a two-state solution to the conflict — an idea increasingly seen by Israelis and by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as unviable. “We obviously see it differently,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “We believe that the Palestinians have every right to live in an independent state with peace and security.”

In a phone call Friday, Biden and Netanyahu discussed the president’s “vision for a more durable peace and security for Israel fully integrated within the region and a two state-solution,” the White House said.

A clear majority of Israelis support the war in Gaza, polls show, but the ferocity of the three-month-long air and ground assault — more than 24,700 Palestinians have been killed and more than 62,100 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — has drawn mounting international criticism and sparked skirmishes across the region, including in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Eisenkot said the war cabinet prevented Netanyahu and the army heads in October from launching an attack on the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, which he said would have realized Hamas’s goal of widening the conflict. He described a shouting match in the cabinet.

“We prevented a very wrong decision,” he said. As the IDF chief of staff from 2015 to 2019, he has said, he bears responsibility for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the bloodiest single day in Israeli history.

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who served as Israel’s back-channel negotiator with Hamas in 2011 for the release of an Israeli soldier, told The Washington Post that Eisenkot’s comments were the most critical of the war effort “from within the center of Israel’s establishment.”

“He set a new moral standard in Israeli politics,” Baskin said. “It’s really in Eisenkot’s hands right now to see how long he is willing to stay in the coalition.” The increasingly unpopular Netanyahu has survived in office through a succession of coalitions of far-right politicians. A majority of his circle, Baskin said, “are behind putting the war effort first and riding on the myth that military pressure will bring the hostages home.”

The organizer of a rare antiwar demonstration Thursday in Tel Aviv cited Eisenkot as an example of the changing attitudes of public figures toward the conflict.

“The number of people in Israeli society saying we need to stop the fighting to bring back the hostages is steadily growing,” said Alon Lee-Green, head of Standing Together, a group that attempts to advance the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Palestinians.

Some 2,000 people, including Israelis and Palestinians, turned out for the demonstration to demand a cease-fire. Participants held signs that read “Only peace will bring security” and “In Gaza and in Sderot, children just want to live.”

Lee-Green said it was the largest such demonstration since the conflict began.

Before Oct. 7, Israelis were deeply divided over Netanyahu and his government’s push to overhaul the country’s judicial system, which his critics said would pave the way for authoritarian rule.

The country swiftly united after the Hamas attack, which Israelis saw as an existential threat, and the media here covers little of the civilian cost in Gaza or any criticism of the war. But concern among Israelis over the fate of the hostages has continued to dominate public discourse, alongside growing pressure on Netanyahu to capture or kill top Hamas leaders and lay out a postwar strategy.

“We understand today that Hamas is not going to disappear, certainly not in the coming year, and rocket fire is going to continue to one degree or another,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “Let’s at least get the hostages released.”

In Gaza, internet and cellphone service began to return Friday night after a week-long outage that cut most of the enclave’s 2.1 million people off from the outside world and further complicated the difficult and dangerous business of distributing aid. The near-total communications blackout was Gaza’s seventh since the war began.

Health conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate, the United Nations reported. Illness is spreading in crowded shelters and access to medical care is limited.

Ted Chaiban, deputy chief of UNICEF, returned from a three-day visit to Gaza to report “some of the most horrific conditions I have ever seen. Since my last visit, the situation has gone from catastrophic to near collapse.”

The Gaza Health Ministry on Thursday reported more than 8,000 cases of viral hepatitis linked to crowding in shelters.

A 51-year-old Palestinian woman in Gaza told The Washington Post at 2 p.m. Friday that she had not yet eaten. Mervat, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, said she had been displaced more than five times since early November, when her home in Gaza City was destroyed.

“We haven’t gotten any aid,” she said from a makeshift refugee camp in the southern city of Rafah, to which about half the Gazan population has fled. “We don’t know where the aid is going. No one is helping us. No tents. No mattress. No vegetables. No food. The aid that is distributed to people, it just goes to their friends.”

Mervat said she suffers from anemia, dehydration and an inflamed kidney. Even before the latest blackout, she said, she had not been able to reach her parents or two of her children in northern Gaza.

Bombardments and ground fighting continued across the enclave Friday.

Israeli troops have pulled back from parts of northern Gaza in recent days and redeployed in other areas, according to local reports. Heavy shelling was reported in Khan Younis as Israeli troops moved closer to al-Nasser Hospital, Gaza’s largest hospital that is still functioning at least partially; it is also a shelter for displaced Gazans. The IDF suspects that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar — Israel’s top target — might be hiding in tunnels under Khan Younis.

Between bursts of fighting, Palestinians searched fearfully for the bodies of the dead.

In the central refugee camp of Maghazi, the recent withdrawal of Israeli troops meant that Ahmed Abu Saif, 48, could look for the remains of displaced relatives whose temporary house was hit two weeks ago.

On Friday, he told The Post, he dug out the remains of 11 family members trapped under the rubble. Abu Saif wrapped the decomposing bodies, loaded them onto a donkey cart and took them to the closest functioning hospital.

Sixteen relatives remain missing, he said.

The United States on Thursday launched another round of strikes on the Houthi militants in Yemen. The Houthis have been attacking marine shipping linked to Israel or the United States in protest of the Gaza war.

Kirby said U.S. jets targeted anti-ship missiles that were about to be launched. The Houthis still fired on a U.S.-owned ship later in the day in its third attack on commercial vessels in three days.

The movement’s spokesman, Mohammed Abdusalam, told Reuters on Friday that the attacks would remain focused on blockading Israel and retaliating against U.S. strikes, but would not target past foes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Stern reported from Tel Aviv. Paul Schemm and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

Israel-Gaza war

U.S. naval forces launched three additional strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen on Friday morning, targeting anti-ship missiles, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. In the Gaza Strip, internet and cellphone communications were gradually restored, ending a week-long outage that kept most of the territory’s 2.1 million people cut off, amid a war and humanitarian crisis.

Pakistan launched retaliatory strikes Thursday on militants in Iran, its Foreign Ministry said, as tensions in the Middle East appeared to be spreading.

Oct. 7 attack: Hamas spent more than a year planning its assault on Israel. A Washington Post video analysis shows how Hamas exploited vulnerabilities created by Israel’s reliance on technology at the “Iron Wall,” the security barrier bordering the Gaza Strip, to carry out the deadliest attack in Israel’s history. Stock traders earned millions of dollars anticipating the Hamas attack, a study found.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has a complicated history. Understand what’s behind the Israel-Gaza war and read about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.