Middle East Crisis: Netanyahu Dissolves War Cabinet After 2 Key Members Quit

The announcement came seemingly out of the blue on Sunday when it was first publicized via the Israeli military’s English and Arabic-language channels: The military would “pause” its fighting during daytime hours along an important humanitarian aid corridor in southern Gaza until further notice.

Amid some immediate confusion over the scope of the pause, a clarification swiftly followed, this time in Hebrew and seemingly for domestic consumption. The change did not mean a cessation of fighting in the southern Gaza Strip, that statement said, adding that the campaign in the southernmost city of Rafah was continuing. Military officials said the daily pauses were meant only to facilitate the increased distribution of food aid in Gaza, where international organizations have issued dire warnings about hunger.

The strange choreography of the messaging became stranger still when the government suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only learned of the military’s plan from news reports and signaled his disapproval.

But analysts said it was likely that the prime minister was aware of the plan and that each announcement was tailored to different audiences. The whipsaw statements appeared to reflect the competing pressures facing Mr. Netanyahu, as he juggles demands from the Biden administration and elsewhere around the globe with those of his own hawkish government. His far-right coalition partners oppose any concessions in Gaza, and he relies on their support to stay in power.

The new policy surrounding the humanitarian corridor — where the military said it would pause fighting from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. daily — went into effect on Saturday, according to military officials. But Mr. Netanyahu insinuated that he did not learn of the plans until Sunday morning.

Children waiting for food in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday.Credit…Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

“It’s classic Bibi,” said Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. Like other experts, he said the announcement was unlikely to have been a complete surprise to him, even if the military commanders did not update him on the exact timing of what they called a tactical change.

“He has a mask for every occasion,” Mr. Harel said in an interview. “For the Americans, he needs to show he is doing more to get aid in. For the Israeli audience he can say ‘I didn’t know’ and go for plausible deniability.”

A statement issued on Sunday by an anonymous government official, whose name and office could not be publicized, as per protocol, said that when Mr. Netanyahu learned about the humanitarian pause, he found it unacceptable. The prime minister was later assured, the statement added, that there was no change in the military’s plans regarding the fighting in Rafah, the southern Gaza city near the corridor that has been the focus of recent operations.

Shani Sasson, a spokeswoman for Cogat, the Israeli agency that oversees policy for the Palestinian territories and that liaises with international organizations, said the move was meant to help clear a backlog of more than 1,000 trucks that had already been inspected by Israel and were waiting on the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom crossing.

“We are asking the aid organizations to come and pick up the aid and distribute it,” Ms. Sasson said. “It’s up to them.”

The military’s move coincided with the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and uncertainty over the fate of an Israeli proposal for a cease-fire with Hamas, which includes an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners. Officials said Hamas had demanded some unworkable changes to the proposal that was backed by the Biden administration and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Palestinians visiting the grave of a relative at a makeshift cemetery in the eastern al-Tuffah neighborhood of Gaza City, on Sunday.Credit…Omar Al-Qattaa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The “tactical pause” also comes as Israel awaits another international report expected this month regarding food insecurity in Gaza. A previous report in March, warned that half the population of Gaza was facing “catastrophic” food insecurity and imminent famine.

Mr. Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, also have the threat of arrest, on accusations of war crimes, from the International Criminal Court in The Hague hanging over them. They have been accused of using starvation as a weapon of war.

Israel has portrayed Rafah as a last bastion of Hamas’s organized battalions and the military operation there as the final major step in the war. The military has now gained control of the corridor along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, long a main conduit for weapons smuggling into the territory.

Israelis are increasingly questioning where the war goes from here and when it will end. The cost for both sides is rising all the time. At least 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in combat this weekend and an 11th died of wounds sustained days earlier.

About 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that prompted the war and in all, more than 300 Israeli soldiers have since been killed in combat.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far, according to the Gaza health ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 this weekend, Gadi Eisenkot, a former military chief and now a centrist politician who quit the emergency wartime government along with his party leader, Benny Gantz, last week, accused Mr. Netanyahu of putting his political needs before those of national security.

Mr. Eisenkot said that the influence of one of Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, was a constant presence over the discussions in the war cabinet, even though Mr. Ben-Gvir is not a member of that decision-making body.

The funeral of Captain Waseem Mahmoud, killed in combat this weekend, in Beit Jann, Israel, on Sunday.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

Mr. Ben-Gvir and the far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, have openly criticized the military leadership during the war and have also vowed to bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s government if he agrees to a cease-fire deal before Hamas is fully destroyed — a goal that many experts say is unattainable.

Predictably, Mr. Ben-Gvir was quick on Sunday to attack the military’s announcement of the humanitarian pause in a social media post, denouncing it as a “crazy and delusional approach” and adding that “the evil fool” who decided on it “must not continue in his position.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir did not specify who he meant.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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