After a Hamas rocket launch broke the seven day ceasefire, Israel has now returned to the fight, bombing terrorist targets in Gaza and attacking on the ground. Unless the humanitarian truce is resumed, the IDF has unfinished business to complete in Gaza City and is also attacking Khan Yunis further south.
This city is a major Hamas stronghold. The terrorists will have used the pause in fighting to improve their defences and prepare sniper positions, mines and explosive booby traps. It is likely that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is holed up there in the underground tunnel network, along with thousands of terrorists. The IDF also believe that many of the remaining 140 hostages are being held in the city. Along with killing the terrorists, rescuing them will be the highest priority.
This is likely to be a tougher fight than the combat around Gaza city, because many Hamas terrorists, rather than fight a losing battle in the north, retreated there for what may be their last stand. Also because vast numbers of civilians moved south to escape the fighting in the north. The IDF has already made thousands of phone calls and text messages, and dropped leaflets warning them to leave, even air dropping maps showing safer areas to move to. Many however will not leave, and Hamas will do their best to force as many as they can to stay as human shields.
That is going to present the greatest challenge for the IDF. Clearly, as always, for moral as well as legal reasons, they will do all they can to minimise civilian casualties. Not only that, but also the greater the civilian casualties, the greater the pressure from the US to cease hostilities.
The US has also piled yet more demands on the IDF. According to leaked reports from Anthony Blinken’s meeting with the Israeli war cabinet on Thursday, he was told that eradication of Hamas may take months. His extraordinary response was: “I don’t think you have the credit for that”. Blinken’s public remarks also suggested that the clock was ticking for Israel’s war. This puts the IDF in a Catch-22 position. The speedier the operation the greater the likelihood not only of more civilian casualties but also more Israeli military casualties.
The totally unreasonable pressure for a rapid conclusion of hostilities has been applied by the US since the beginning, even in the immediate aftermath of 7th October. A few days ago, Biden perversely tweeted that continuing the war means giving Hamas what they want, and “we can’t do that”. He sent Blinken to Israel to try to extend the ceasefire, which he failed to do.
Bringing a so-called peace to Gaza might be politically advantageous for Joe Biden, with both his eyes on the electoral calendar, but it is strategically irresponsible. If Hamas is not destroyed it will continue to threaten Israel. What would effectively be a victory for Hamas would further embolden Iran and its proxies in the region. It would also encourage jihadists globally, much as the rise of ISIS inspired terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe, the US and elsewhere.
Characteristically, Biden is calling all the foreign policy shots in precisely the wrong way. Instead of pushing Israel to stop its fight, he should be applying the full might of US diplomatic power on Iran and Qatar to get Hamas to leave Gaza just as the Palestine Liberation Organization were forced to leave Lebanon in 1982. If that could be achieved it could immediately end the bloodshed in Gaza.
Meanwhile, to help alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians the US should be pushing Egypt to open its borders to refugees fleeing the fighting. In any case Egypt has a binding legal obligation to do exactly that under an African Union refugee treaty to which it is a state party. That treaty requires its signatories to go even further than the 1951 international Refugee Convention in protecting civilians under threat in a war zone.
The UN too is failing in its obligations. Israel informed the UN that it would be advising civilians to move from Khan Yunis and Rafah to a designated area on the south west coast of Gaza and requested that they establish facilities there to take care of refugees. The UN irresponsibly refused to do so under the pretext that it would be complicit in Israeli action.
It is hard not to be suspicious of both US and UN motives when they make such intolerable demands on Israel in its defensive war, while apparently unwilling to explore other options to reduce the suffering of innocent civilians.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army officer