Categories: News

Israel isn’t ending the war in Gaza — just turning its attention to Hezbollah

A woman looks for salvageable items following Israeli bombardment at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on June 22, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by Omar AL-QATTAA / AFP) (Photo by OMAR AL-QATTAA/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel seems like it might be winding down the intensity of its war in Gaza — just as another fight it’s waging is winding up.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated in a television interview on Sunday that he intends to move some of the country’s forces to the northern border to fight the Lebanon-based military group Hezbollah. Were it not for the war in Gaza, that conflict might have already been capturing the world’s attention. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is also visiting Washington this week in part to discuss the implications of that escalation with US officials.

But as part of that same interview and another that followed Monday, Netanyahu, in typical fashion, delivered conflicting statements about his intentions regarding the future of the war in Gaza.  

In the first interview on Sunday, Netanyahu appeared to rule out a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, which is a requirement of the proposed deal that President Joe Biden laid out last month that would return the remaining Israeli hostages. But the Israeli leader also said that the military would be winding down its activities in Gaza imminently.

“The intense phase of the war will come to an end very soon … But that does not mean that the war will be over,” Netanyahu said. “I am willing to make a partial deal, which will bring some of the people back to us. That is no secret. But we’re committed to continuing the war after the truce.”

However, on Monday, Netanyahu appeared to walk back those remarks somewhat. 

“We are committed to the Israeli proposal for a hostage deal that President Biden welcomed, our position has not changed. The second thing, which does not contradict the first, we will not end the war until we eliminate Hamas,” he said in a speech to the Israeli parliament.

Holding both positions is impossible, and leaves little clarity as to where Netanyahu stands. 

One thing that has become increasingly clear, however, is that Israel’s war is moving into a new phase, dictated largely by increasing tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

Will there be a ceasefire in Gaza soon?

Netanyahu may publicly say that he favors a ceasefire deal. But Mairav Zonszein, senior Israel analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that the international community should take any of Netanyahu’s remarks with a “grain of salt” and that his actions may be more instructive in terms of deciphering his intentions in Gaza.

“We can look at how he’s approached the situation from the get-go, which is that he’s not interested in a strategy in this war that has some kind of endgame, that has some kind of exit strategy, that prioritizes the hostages,” she said. 

Netanyahu’s actions so far are consistent with the three-phase plan for Gaza he and his advisors laid out at the beginning of the war: First, wiping out Hamas’s military and governing capabilities in Gaza (a goal that many security experts, including in Israel, believe to be impossible); second, “eliminat[ing] pockets of resistance” in Gaza through lower-intensity fighting; and third, “the creation of a new security regime” in Gaza that will remove Israel’s “responsibility for day-to-day life” there.

Israel has not yet achieved even its first objective. In that sense, Netanyahu may have no intention of signing a ceasefire deal anytime soon, even if Israel might scale back its operations in Gaza somewhat. That’s because he relies on a right-wing religious nationalist coalition that wants the war to continue. That coalition is keeping him in power amid widespread calls in Israel for early elections and his resignation after the war, as well as shielding him from an ongoing corruption trial.

But his public statements have at times signaled that he is willing to entertain a permanent ceasefire. That may be an attempt to placate the families of remaining Israeli hostages and the US, Israel’s closest ally whose military and political support it relies on. Hostage families have recently stepped up their pressure on Netanyahu to accept a ceasefire deal that would bring their captive loved ones home. Biden has also thrown his weight behind a ceasefire proposal and wants to see the war end, ideally before the November US elections.

Netanyahu is “trying to at once signal to Biden and to the world that he’s willing to go for a deal, but still pander to his base and to his own political interests by not agreeing to the deal,” Zonszein said. 

All of this suggests a ceasefire may not be imminent. But for every day that Israel delays a ceasefire, the threat on its northern border with Lebanon grows. 

Regional war is looming

For months, Israel has been trading fire with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Islamist militant organization and Lebanese political party.

Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by many countries, initially launched its campaign saying it was in “solidarity with the victorious Palestinian resistance.” The group has said that it will not let up its attacks on Israel’s northern border until a ceasefire in Gaza is reached. But it is growing impatient with ceasefire negotiations in which Hamas and Israel do not seem to be converging on an agreement, eight months into the war in Gaza. 

So far, as my colleague Joshua Keating laid out, the human casualties and displacement in Israel and Lebanon caused by this northern fight have been significantly lower than the horrific toll in the south. But it “could have been — and may yet be — far worse than it has been, given the military strength on both sides.” 

Netanyahu did not seem to indicate a ground invasion of Lebanon was imminent. But intense escalation with Hezbollah could be disastrous, as Israel’s previous wars with Hezbollah in 1996 and 2006 would indicate. Both of those conflicts involved heavy civilian casualties in Lebanon, leaving more than 1,200 dead.

It would also be a black mark on the US, which has supported Israel since the beginning of the war and played a leading role in the ceasefire negotiations with the objective of maintaining stability in the Middle East. Throughout the last eight months, US officials like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have repeatedly emphasized that one of the US’s key goals is “to try to keep this conflict that is currently in Israel and Gaza from spinning out into a regional conflict.”

“The US should take seriously Israeli declarations and actions — and take actions of its own to restrain Israel’s recklessness,” said Thanassis Cambanis, director of the progressive think tank Century International. “The US government is more and more deeply implicated in Israel’s [alleged] war crimes, and in what has proven to be a humanitarian disaster and in addition an epic strategic blunder.”

Now, both Israel and Hezbollah are preparing for the possibility that the so-far contained hostilities on the border could escalate into a full-out war, one that could engulf the entire Middle East. Recently, Hezbollah released drone footage of an Israeli military base, suggesting that there are gaps in the country’s air defense system that the group could exploit. Israel, meanwhile, is planning to move troops currently deployed in Gaza to its northern border.  

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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