Israel Preparing to Scale Back Gaza Operations Amid Cease-fire Efforts

After Biden tells Netanyahu he expects to see a de-escalation, Netanyahu says he's 'determined to continue.' But some Israeli officials say Netanyahu's remarks do not contradict moving toward a cease-fire

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, seated, from left to right, last week
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, seated, from left to right, last weekCredit: Kobi Gidon / GPO
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel is preparing to significantly reduce its military operations in an effort to bring about a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict, say some Israeli political officials, despite Netanyahu's remarks on Wednesday that he is “determined to continue the operation" until "calm and security" are restored to Israeli citizens in response to U.S. President Joe Biden's demand for a significant de-escalation during the course of the day.

According to a White House readout of the telephone conversation held on Wednesday between Biden and Netanyahu, “The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States. The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire.”

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This was the fourth conversation between the two leaders in the past week.

Netanyahu, in a statement issued after a meeting with the military’s top brass, said he was “determined to carry on with this operation” until “calm and security are restored to Israeli citizens.” He also said he “really appreciates” the international support Israel was getting from foreign governments. “I particularly appreciate the support given by the president of our friend, the United States, Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self defense,” Netanyahu added.

A senior Israeli diplomatic official spoke with his counterparts in Washington and made it clear that American pressure on Israel could encourage Hamas to intensify its actions and undermine the effort to restore calm. Another senior Israeli official said Biden’s decision to call for de-escalation and not a cease-fire was aimed at giving the Israel Defense Forces room to maneuver over the next few days.

However, some officials were uncomfortable with Biden’s declaration. “When Hamas sees Israel being pushed to stop its military activities, it gets stronger and is liable to escalate both its conditions for a cease-fire and its operational activities against Israel,” one official said.

Some officials are calling for the attacks to be intensified now, to indicate to Hamas that Israel will not be deterred from acting aggressively despite international pressure.

Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border, on WednesdayCredit: Tsafrir Abayov / AP

Netanyahu’s remarks do not conflict with the possibility that Israel will hold its fire shortly. A senior political official confirmed yesterday that Israel is interested in a cease-fire brokered by Egypt. The security cabinet, which is tasked with approving any cease-fire, didn’t convene Wednesday, and sources in Jerusalem say this is a sign that the talks aren’t making headway. If there is progress in the talks, the security cabinet might convene during Thursday, the sources said.

Israel believes that the next 24 hours will test whether it can advance a cease-fire. Some security cabinet ministers have been suggesting a unilateral suspension of operations, on the assumption that Hamas will respond by standing down. Such a move is based on the assumption that Israel will not be able to reach understandings with the terror group right now. But at least publicly, Israel is relying on Egyptian mediation efforts and is demanding that Hamas be the one to request the cease-fire. In recent days, the Egyptians have been repeatedly passing on proposals from Hamas that were not acceptable to Israel. 

Earlier Wednesday, Israel said it was not setting a time frame for an end to hostilities with Gaza as its military pounded the Palestinian enclave with air strikes and Hamas militants unleashed new cross-border rocket attacks. But Biden’s latest calls and diplomatic efforts have increasingly been geared toward pressing Netanyahu on a timetable.

The conditions that Hamas is demanding for a cease-fire, at least as reflected in what it has said to the media, go beyond the situation in the Gaza Strip to the one in Jerusalem.

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chief of Hamas’ political bureau, in interviews with Arab media outlets, placed the status of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the top of the Islamist organization’s list of demands.

This week al-Arouri demanded that Israel halt its “aggression” against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prevent Israeli police and “settlers” from entering. He also demanded that Israel commit not to evict the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah who are facing the loss of their homes.

Hamas has also repeated its ultimate demand that the blockade of the Gaza Strip be lifted, that border crossings in an out of the Strip be kept open and that restrictions on the flow of goods over the border between Gaza and Israel be lifted.

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