Thursday, July 25, 2024

Israel faces a crisis of its own making as chaos and hunger spread in Gaza


TEL AVIV – For three months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly celebrated the fall of Hamas in northern Gaza, ignoring warnings that severe food scarcity and a widening power vacuum were creating chaos.

But after the recent aid convoy disaster in Gaza City, and amid reports of Palestinian children dying from malnutrition, Netanyahu faces an international reckoning – under increasing pressure from the United States to stave off famine and restore order in the devastated Strip. Current and former officials say the crisis stems from Israel's failure to develop a practical post-war strategy, or plan for the consequences of an open military occupation.

Eran Etzion, former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, said the situation in northern Gaza highlights “the depth of the quagmire, the chaos and the inability to restore any kind of normalcy” after the most intense phases of the fighting are over.

“Preventing famine is Israel’s responsibility from a legal standpoint – to do otherwise would be contrary to the standards that Israel pretends to uphold – but also strategically, in order to avoid international pressure,” Etzion added.

Pressure continued to mount on Thursday, as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer warned that Israel risked becoming an international “pariah” if Netanyahu remained in power. The striking speech by the highest-ranking Jewish official in the United States was the clearest sign yet of Washington's discontent with the Israeli leader and his handling of the war in Gaza.

However, the chaos in the north raises bigger questions that the Israeli government – torn between a security establishment demanding an exit strategy and a coalition whose far-right members hope to occupy the Strip – is unwilling to answer. in interview In an interview with Politico on Sunday, Netanyahu again rejected the idea of ​​handing power to the Palestinian Authority, which Washington sees as the only viable alternative to Hamas.

When asked about the hunger crisis in northern Gaza, Netanyahu responded: “This is not the information we have. We are monitoring it closely. Most importantly, it is not our policy. Our policies are to provide as much humanitarian aid as possible.”

Israel is working to weaken UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, which has the most experience providing aid and other services in Gaza. The United States, among other international donors, withdrew its funding from the agency in January after Israel accused more than a dozen of its employees of participating in the October 7 attacks. UNRWA has expelled workers allegedly linked to 7 October and is investigating the allegations.

More than 150 UNRWA facilities were bombed in the war, and at least 165 employees were killed, according to the agency. He says. An Israeli raid on a food distribution site in Rafah on Wednesday killed an employee and injured 22 others. Israel said it was targeting a Hamas leader responsible for transferring aid to the movement; Hamas said the man was the deputy police chief in the region.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the Biden administration is “deeply concerned” about Wednesday's raid in Rafah and wants to see Israel conduct a “quick and thorough investigation into exactly what happened.”

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With UNRWA effectively marginalized, the Israeli government is stalling and looking for alternatives Help groups And Allies Be warned, time is running out. Many of the 300,000 people remaining in the north skip at least one meal a day and resort to eating animal fodder and foraging for wild plants. At least 27 people, most of them children, have died from malnutrition or dehydration in recent weeks, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

“If we do not significantly increase the amount of aid provided to the northern regions, famine will be imminent,” Cindy McCain, head of the United Nations World Food Programme, said in a press release. statement Monday.

While the United States, Europe and Arab countries are now scrambling to increase aid through airdrops and a new sea corridor, the Israeli government “is not working to translate the military’s significant tactical successes into something sustainable,” said Israel Ziv, the former head of the mission. IDF Operations Directorate.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis was highlighted on February 29, when thousands of hungry Gazans rushed to a food convoy in the predawn darkness. Israeli forces opened fire and killed more than 100 people, according to Palestinian health officials. Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hajari said that Israeli forces fired only warning shots and that most of the dead were trampled during the stampede. Palestinian doctors said that the majority of the victims they were caring for had gunshot wounds. a group of United Nations experts He described it as a “massacre.”

Two senior Biden administration officials told The Washington Post that the sequence of events remains unclear, but they said Israel created the conditions that led to the tragedy. Three days later, in the administration's harshest rebuke of Israel yet, Vice President Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire” and more aid to Gaza — “no excuses,” she said.

President Biden then announced the construction of a pier off the coast of Gaza and the establishment of a sea corridor for aid, which Israel will be responsible for securing.

“This was a mess of Israel’s making,” said one administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks. “Ultimately, Israel is responsible for the mass starvation and lack of aid.”

Netanyahu remained defiant. In a speech on Tuesday to the pro-Israel Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he said the international community could not “support Israel in destroying Hamas, and then oppose Israel when it takes the necessary actions to achieve that goal.”

He also pledged to move forward with the military operation in Rafah in the south of the country, where about 1.5 million displaced Gazans have taken refuge. The Israeli military said on Wednesday that civilians would be evacuated to “humanitarian islands” in the center of the area before the invasion.

An Israeli official told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, that Netanyahu's government was not involved in the pier project. But he said they welcomed the establishment of the sea aid corridor, which Israel has been pushing for since the first weeks of the ground invasion.

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Humanitarian groups and diplomats say deliveries by air and sea are no substitute for continued, unhindered land access. An average of 500 trucks crossed into Gaza daily before the war. During five months of conflict, Israeli restrictions kept the daily rate well below the 200 days that Israel promised to facilitate. In mid-February, only a handful of trucks crossed on some days, partly due to Israeli attacks on aid convoys and the police forces – the last vestiges of Hamas rule – that protected them. With the collapse of security in the north, aid deliveries have almost stopped.

The Israeli official said that Israel has not yet found a new partner “on the ground in terms of providing aid in a better way.” “In the future, the goal is to have someone…who will now be able to maintain the law and order surrounding the provision of services,” he added. [aid] In the future, it will put Gaza on a different path.”

Who will lead these efforts — and how Israel will find them — remains unclear. The government did not set a specific timetable for achieving the main goals of the war: the destruction of Hamas and the return of more than a hundred hostages still being held in Gaza.

“As long as there is no ‘day after’ strategy, it creates a situation in which the IDF begins to run in circles,” said Gadi Shamni, former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division.

For at least two months, Israel has partnered with local businessmen to truck aid into the north. The pilot program – which remained mostly under the radar until the fatal convoy incident – offers some clues about Israel's post-war plans.

The initiative originally involved five Gaza business owners, each allocated 20 trucks a day, one businessman involved in the deadly convoy said last month, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation. The businessman was contacted last month by the Coordination Unit of Government Activities in the Territories, an arm of the Israeli Defense Ministry, and asked if he could deliver food to the north.

The businessman said that despite concerns about looting, he agreed to take the job, hoping the influx of goods would bring down spiraling prices on Gaza's black market. After the February 29 disaster, he stopped organizing caravans, saying, “Never look for law and order in the middle of famine,” though he noted that other Palestinian businessmen were still involved in the effort.

More than 150 aid trucks, mostly from the private sector, have entered northern Gaza in the past two weeks, according to the Office for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Under new protocols implemented this month, “at the request of the US government,” the Israeli army said in a statement, the trucks are searched at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Israel, and then the Israeli army escorts them for a distance of about 30 miles on a road along the security border. . a wall. The trucks enter through a new crossing – called “96”, near Kibbutz Beri – and continue unescorted into northern Gaza.

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Hajri told international reporters on Wednesday that six World Food Program trucks passed through the corridor on Tuesday.

He added: “We must work together, with international organizations and other countries, to find an alternative to the North.” “We will flood Gaza with aid”

But introducing trucks into the sector is only the first in a series of complex challenges.

Michael said: “The goal is to obtain more and more containers, but the question remains about who will receive these containers, who will secure them, and who will sort them, and Israel finds itself again and again returning to square one.” Milstein, former head of the Palestinian division of Israeli military intelligence.

The pilot aid distribution program has drawn new attention to Netanyahu's vaguely defined plan for post-war Gaza, released last month, which called for partnering with “local entities with administrative expertise” — widely interpreted as a nod to some of the most powerful families. In Gaza, or the tribes, which had influence in different parts of the Strip and had clashed with Hamas in the past.

Hamas warned this week that any Palestinian working alongside Israel to provide security for aid convoys would be targeted as collaborators.

Al-Majd website, affiliated with Hamas, said: “Israel’s attempt to communicate with the leaders and clans of some families to work inside the Gaza Strip is considered direct cooperation with the occupation and a betrayal of the nation that we will not tolerate.” Quoted by an anonymous military official.

Hamas is not the only obstacle.

“You can't find a family that can exercise that kind of control,” said an Israeli official familiar with the postwar discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss this sensitive topic.

Israel has tried to partner with local tribes several times – most recently in the 1980s – as alternatives to nationalist movements such as Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

“It has been tried,” said Ziv, the retired Israeli general, adding that the plan risks “turning Gaza into Somalia, where every family is fighting each other, arming itself, and Israel will not intervene.”

Milstein, the former Israeli intelligence official, said that without a more feasible long-term strategy, the Israeli military could find itself occupying Gaza indefinitely, which Washington has said is unacceptable.

He added: “Israel is not working to find a partner to work with in Gaza, but instead has begun making all kinds of arrangements with the tribes, with Palestinian businessmen… waiting for some kind of magic to happen.” “The idea that any of it will work is just an illusion.”

Abu Talib reported from Washington. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo, Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, and Karen De Jong in Washington contributed to this report.



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