Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Heavy fighting in northern Gaza as Israeli official gives Netanyahu ultimatum

People move past destroyed buildings along a street in Khan Younis in southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.  (AFP)
By Bryan Pietsch and Mohamad El Chamaa Washington Post

Israel’s lack of a coherent postwar strategy threatened to unravel an increasingly fragile government as Israeli forces on Saturday sought to stamp out a resurgent Hamas in northern Gaza, where it had earlier claimed success.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, issued an ultimatum on Saturday evening, warning that he would resign from his position if the cabinet did not draft and approve a “comprehensive” postwar plan by June 8.

Such a plan should include the return of hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza, demilitarizing the Gaza Strip and determining an alternative government for the enclave, among other objectives, he said. Addressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the war cabinet, Gantz said: “The choice is in your hands.”

The remarks came as Israeli forces continued their weeklong operation in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, where witnesses described a scene of devastation.

“The army is committing massacres against the civilians that refused to leave their houses or be displaced because of how many times they already had to move ever since the start of this ferocious war,” said Eshak Daour, a journalist in Gaza. “The situation in Jabalya is catastrophic. The army is burning down a lot of the houses and destroying (Jabalya).”

Three residential buildings were targeted, killing 40 people, said Yahya Almadhoun, a local journalist. Jabalya was “overflowing” with the bodies of the dead and injured “but the ambulances can’t even get inside the camp because of the Israeli military operations,” Almadhoun said.

Bakr Abu Safeya, a doctor at Al-Awda hospital, said his hospital received 35 injured people, and nearby Kamal Adwan hospital received dozens of dead and injured “as it is a bigger hospital than ours, and has a morgue.”

“Today was a hard day,” he told the Washington Post on Saturday. “The quadcopter is still flying over us, the one that shoots bullets. They’re still shelling and war planes are still targeting.”

The Israel Defense Forces had in December claimed victory in Jabalya, saying it had killed hundreds of Hamas militants there. After clearing through much of the Gaza Strip since October, Israel has described its operations in the southern city of Rafah as an effort to root out the last remaining stronghold of Hamas militants.

But the large operation in Jabalya, where the IDF said in a statement it had “engaged and eliminated terrorists in a number of battles” in recent days, appeared contrary to Netanyahu’s long-standing framing of Rafah as the last major battleground in the Gaza Strip.

The Biden administration has warned Israel not to invade the southern city, where hundreds of thousands of Gazans had fled to seek refuge from devastation elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. The IDF’s ongoing operation in Rafah has set off a massive reverse exodus, with 800,000 people fleeing since Israeli forces began fighting there this month, Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, said on Saturday.

Israel said it would not invade Rafah without first creating substantive humanitarian safe zones for evacuees. Humanitarian organizations have said that such places of refuge have not come to fruition. Al-Mawasi, one part of Gaza where Rafah evacuees were fleeing to, is desolate, crowded and ill-equipped to handle the influx of people, Lazzarini said.

“Gaza does not have any safe zones,” he said. “No place is safe. No one is safe.”

The IDF’s operation in Rafah has also left the Rafah crossing shuttered. The crossing between Gaza and Egypt had been the main artery for aid deliveries as Gazans face widespread hunger. It was also a major checkpoint for aid workers entering and exiting Gaza. The May 7 seizure and closure of the Rafah border crossing by Israeli forces had left some international volunteers stranded, including 17 American doctors and health care workers who were on their way home this weekend.

Three doctors stayed behind, including Adam Hamawy, a reconstructive plastic surgeon and veteran U.S. Army combat surgeon who was among 10 Americans on a mission with the Virginia-based Palestinian American Medical Association. Hamawy said in messages to the Post that he had “never in my career witnessed the level of atrocities and targeting of my medical colleagues as I have in Gaza.”

Hamawy said it was up to President Biden and the international community to “use their full influence” to ensure medical volunteers can continue humanitarian work in Gaza and not “suffer a similar fate of al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals, where humanitarian workers, patients, and civilians were massacred.”

The growing divide between Netanyahu and others in his government over what the end of the seven-monthlong war will look like comes amid a similar chasm between the prime minister and the Biden administration.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said on Monday that the United States and Israel were “struggling over what the theory of victory is,” adding: “Sometimes when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory. I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was scheduled to travel to Israel on Sunday to meet with Israeli officials including Netanyahu, said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. Sullivan is set to discuss the war, efforts to release the hostages, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as “our shared objective for the enduring defeat of Hamas through both military pressure and a political plan,” Watson said.

Dozens of hostages remain held in Gaza, and some of them are believed to be dead, Israel has said. The IDF said Saturday it had recovered the body of Ron Benjamin; he was killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and his body was subsequently brought into Gaza, the IDF said. Benjamin’s body was recovered alongside those of three other Israelis, Yitzhak Gelernter, Shani Louk and Amit Buskila, it said. The bodies were recovered from tunnels in Gaza on Thursday evening, the IDF said Friday.

Benjamin was a married father of two and an avid cyclist, according to a statement from the Hostages Families Forum, which speaks on behalf of the hostages’ families. “He used to go out for a ride every Saturday, just as he did on that fateful Saturday when he was taken hostage from the Kibbutz Beeri area while on a cycling trip” on Oct. 7, the statement said.

- – -

Kim Bellware and Alon Rom contributed to this report.