Middle East Crisis: Netanyahu Pushes for Indefinite Military Control Over Gaza

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Israeli soldiers near Gaza’s coastline during an escorted media tour this month.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel released on Friday his most detailed vision yet for a postwar Gaza, pledging to retain indefinite military control over the enclave while ceding the administration of civilian life to Gazans without links to Hamas.

The plan would make it almost impossible to establish a contiguous Palestinian state in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, at least in the short term. That would likely accelerate a clash between Israel and a growing number of its foreign partners, including the United States, that are pushing for Palestinian sovereignty after the war ends.

Mr. Netanyahu released his plan on the day that Israeli, Qatari, U.S. and Egyptian officials were set to meet in Paris in an effort to advance a deal for a cease-fire and the release of hostages captured by Hamas and its allies in their Oct. 7 attacks. While Israeli officials have indicated that they are open to making a deal to pause fighting and free captives, they have steadfastly rejected pressure to move toward a permanent cease-fire, insisting that they are prepared to wage a protracted campaign to destroy Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu’s plan envisions the creation of an Israeli-controlled buffer zone along the length of Gaza’s border with Egypt, a move that risks inflaming tensions with the Egyptian government. That aspect of the plan would require Israel to invade Rafah, the southernmost city of Gaza, where most Gazans are currently sheltering, risking their mass displacement onto Egyptian territory, an outcome that Egypt has repeatedly warned against.

The plan also says Israel will seek to retain control over a sliver of land inside Gaza along the Israeli border, where its military is systematically demolishing thousands of buildings in order to create another buffer zone. Israel’s intention is to make it harder for militants in Gaza to repeat a raid like that of Oct. 7, in which Israeli officials say some 1,200 people were killed, although the United States and others have spoken out against any effort to reduce the size of Gaza.

The plan was circulated to cabinet ministers and journalists in the early hours of Friday morning. Though Mr. Netanyahu has laid out most of the proposals in public statements, this is the first time that he has collected them in a single document.

The plan does not say whether Israeli settlers would be allowed to re-establish communities on Gazan soil, as Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing supporters are pushing for. A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that puts the prime minister at odds with his base, said that there were no plans to resettle Gaza with Jews, but declined to say so on the record, leaving the prime minister with room for maneuver in the future. Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza in 2005, while maintaining control over its airspace, access to the sea, population registry and telecommunication networks.

Other parts of the plan include:

  • Handing administrative control to “local stakeholders with managerial experience” who are “not affiliated with countries or entities that support terrorism.” The reference to terrorism aims to exclude anyone that Israel says has connections to Hamas. And while the document does not explicitly mention the Palestinian Authority, the body that administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the reference to local residents implicitly rules out the involvement of the authority’s leadership in the postwar set-up — a position that is at odds with that of the Biden administration.

  • The dismantling of UNRWA, the main U.N. agency operating in Gaza. Israel has accused 30 UNRWA workers of participating in the Oct. 7 attack. UNRWA’s leaders say the agency tries to ensure its 13,000 employees in Gaza uphold standards of neutrality, but they say it is not possible to track the private allegiances of all its employees.

  • Opposing foreign recognition of a Palestinian state. The plan says that a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be achieved through bilateral talks between the two sides. Mr. Netanyahu has previously rejected the concept of a permanent Palestinian state, but his plan released on Friday did not explicitly rule it out.

  • The overhaul of the Gazan education and welfare systems. Israel says schools and other public institutions in Gaza foment extremism.

Patrick Kingsley reporting from Jerusalem

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Brett McGurk at the U.S. Capitol in 2019.Credit…Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senior Israeli, Qatari, U.S. and Egyptian officials will meet in Paris on Friday to attempt to advance a deal for a cease-fire and the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, an Israeli official and a person briefed on the talks said on Thursday.

The news came after President Biden’s Mideast envoy met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials in Israel, part of a flurry of efforts to negotiate the release of hostages held in Gaza and a pause in the fighting. According to Israeli officials, about 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza. At least 30 others there are dead, officials believe.

The Mossad chief, David Barnea; the C.I.A. director, William Burns; the Qatari prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani; and Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence, are among the expected attendees, the Israeli official and the person briefed on the talks said, both speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatic developments.

Qatar and Egypt have been acting as intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, which do not negotiate directly.

On Tuesday, Hamas said that a delegation led by Ismail Haniyeh was in Cairo to discuss efforts to end the war with Egyptian officials. On Thursday, Hamas issued a statement saying that Mr. Haniyeh had met with the Egyptian intelligence chief and aides, and had concluded his visit. The statement said that among the topics those talks addressed were ending the war, the return of displaced people to their homes, humanitarian aid, swapping hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and “what the occupation is planning at al-Aqsa Mosque” during Ramadan.

Efforts to secure a cease-fire deal have taken on greater urgency as the death toll from four months of war in the Gaza Strip nears 30,000 Palestinians, according to health officials there, and as Israel’s stated plan to invade Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, raises international alarm.

The talks had appeared to stall last week, after discussions held in Cairo failed to reach a breakthrough. Mr. Netanyahu withdrew his negotiators, accusing Hamas of refusing to budge on what he called “ludicrous” demands and pledged to press on with Israel’s offensive.

But on Wednesday night, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said that there had been momentum on a new draft of a deal that indicated a “possibility to advance.”

And on Thursday, a White House official said that President Biden’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, had held “constructive” meetings in Israel with Mr. Netanyahu; Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister; and other members of Israel’s war cabinet.

“The initial indications we’re getting from Brett is these discussions are going well,” said the official, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He also said that Mr. McGurk had spent a “good couple of hours” with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. McGurk was focused on whether negotiators could “cement a hostage deal for an extended pause to get all of those hostages home where they belong and get a reduction in the violence so that we can get more humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Kirby said.

Mr. Gallant, after meeting with Mr. McGurk on Thursday in Tel Aviv, said that Israel’s government would “expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators.”

One person briefed on the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were indications that both Hamas and Israel were willing to negotiate over an interim deal that could exchange 35 Israeli hostages who are either medically frail or older for an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners.

Mr. Kirby said Mr. McGurk intended to press the Israeli war cabinet for its plans for its military operation in Rafah.

“Nothing has changed about our view that any operation in Rafah without due consideration and a credible executive plan for the safety and security of the more than a million Palestinians seeking refuge in Rafah would be a disaster,” Mr. Kirby said. “We would not support that.”

Earlier this week, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, saying it feared it could disrupt hostage negotiations.

Israeli and U.S. officials have argued that an immediate cease-fire would allow Hamas to regroup and fortify in Gaza, and reduce the pressure for making a deal to release hostages held in the territory.

The United States has drafted a rival resolution, which is still in early stages of negotiations, that calls for a temporary humanitarian cease-fire “as soon as practicable,” and the release of hostages.

Adam Sella and Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting.

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A woman grieves as people killed in an Israeli strike are buried at the Nasser hospital premises last month.Credit…Ahmed Zakot/Reuters

The Gaza Health Ministry said that conditions were deteriorating rapidly at the largest hospital in Khan Younis on Thursday and that Israeli forces had once again invaded the complex after a brief withdrawal earlier in the day.

The ministry said 13 patients who had died from the lack of power and oxygen in recent days had been buried within the hospital complex. Sewage had flooded its ground floor, the ministry said, and the hospital was out of drinking water and food.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their operations or conditions at the hospital. Israeli authorities have pushed back on the World Health Organization’s description of dire conditions at the hospital, saying this week that the facility had sufficient medical supplies and that Israel had delivered a generator for the intensive care unit and food for the remaining patients.

Nasser was the largest functioning hospital left in Gaza before Israeli forces stormed it last week in what the military said was a search for Hamas fighters, arms and the bodies of Israeli hostages. Before that, fighting had raged around the sprawling hospital for weeks, devastating the surrounding neighborhoods. Israeli troops had ordered thousands of displaced Palestinians who were sheltering at the hospital to leave, and doctors said some were shot at as they tried to flee.

The W.H.O. said on Sunday that Nasser could no longer function, and aid groups have been scrambling over the past week to transport patients from what the facility to other sites in southern Gaza, including field hospitals.

Dr. Ayadil Saparbekov, a W.H.O. official whose responsibilities cover Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, said at a news conference on Thursday that 51 patients had been evacuated from Nasser over the course of three missions earlier in the week, but that 140 patients still remained. The W.H.O. and its partners would continue trying to move them, he said, but the situation remained “very difficult.”

To effectively carry out our work, especially in emergency contexts, health must be prioritized by all parties to conflict as a fundamental right, and the sanctity of health must be respected. This means ensuring that people have access to functioning health services. pic.twitter.com/bFB0xLRQ5G

— HananBalkhyحنان بلخي (@HananBalkhy) February 22, 2024

Footage of the evacuation missions shared by the W.H.O. showed aid workers comforting patients in the dark and lifting them from hospital beds as explosions boomed nearby. W.H.O. personnel witnessed four doctors and nurses and about a dozen volunteers who were still at the hospital trying to keep patients alive, Dr. Saparbekov said. The hospital has no food, no medical supplies, no oxygen and no electricity, he said.

Gaza’s health ministry reported on Thursday evening that Israeli forces had withdrawn from the hospital but were still surrounding it and were blocking movement. Less than two hours later, however, the ministry said that soldiers had raided the facility again.

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