Middle East Crisis: Netanyahu, Responding to Schumer, Vows to Push Ahead With War

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel speaking in Jerusalem last month.Credit…Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday responded directly to Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, calling his recent criticism of the Israeli leader and call for elections there “totally inappropriate.”

In an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mr. Netanyahu accused Mr. Schumer of trying to bring down the Israeli government, adding that the only government that Israel and the United States should be working to take down was “the terrorist tyranny in Gaza.”

Mr. Netanyahu said trying to replace the government of a “sister democracy” was not appropriate. “That’s something that Israel, the Israeli public does on its own,” he said. “We’re not a banana republic.”

Mr. Netanyahu is facing growing international criticism of his handling of the war in Gaza and its deadly toll on Palestinians. He has also encountered domestic disapproval for refusing to take responsibility for the security failures that preceded the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Asked whether he would commit to holding elections whenever the war was winding down, Mr. Netanyahu said discussing the matter was “ridiculous.”

On Thursday, Mr. Schumer, a Democrat from New York and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, delivered a scathing speech on the Senate floor, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of letting his political survival supersede “the best interests of Israel” and of being “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza.”

Mr. Schumer said he thought an election should take place when the war started to wind down, and he expressed support for a temporary cease-fire that would allow for the return of hostages held in Gaza and for more aid for Palestinians.

The speech was indicative of the widening gap between Israel and the United States over the war and mounting frustrations in Washington with Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

In remarks Sunday to his government before a meeting with Germany’s leader, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Mr. Netanyahu stressed that Israel would continue fighting in Gaza until “complete victory.” He also vowed that the army would invade Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, where more than one million Palestinians have been packed into crowded shelters, tent encampments and friends’ and relatives’ homes. He added that Israel had approved the military’s plans to operate in Rafah, including measures to evacuate the civilian population from combat areas.

President Biden has told Mr. Netanyahu that Israel should not proceed with an operation in Rafah without “a credible and executable plan” for the safety and support of the civilians there, according to the White House. John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the United States “would welcome the opportunity” to see the plan.

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah, weary from more than five months of war, have said they are terrified a ground invasion of the city could result in mass civilian casualties. But Mr. Netanyahu repeated on Sunday his position that entering Rafah was necessary to eliminate Hamas and “the only way to use the military pressure necessary to free all of our hostages.” He did not say when an invasion would begin.

In his interview with CNN, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would continue to try reach a deal to free hostages in exchange for a temporary cease-fire and the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but he called Hamas’s demands “outlandish.”

On Thursday, Hamas presented a new proposal to Qatari and Egyptian mediators that didn’t demand that Israel immediately agree to a permanent cease-fire in return for beginning a hostage and prisoner exchange, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

For months, Hamas leaders have been publicly calling for a comprehensive cease-fire and complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israeli officials have repeatedly rejected the demands and expressed openness only to a temporary pause.

Minho Kim contributed reporting from Washington.

Adam Rasgon reporting from Jerusalem

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World Central Kitchen is the only aid group that has successfully delivered aid directly to Gaza by sea.Credit…Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters

As a second ship towing desperately needed aid prepared to depart for Gaza on Sunday, José Andrés, the founder of the food charity sending the vessels, called for a cease-fire and said that Israel should be doing more to prevent hunger in Gaza.

“At the very least,” Mr. Andrés, the celebrity chef, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Israel should “make sure that nobody’s hungry and that nobody’s without food and water.”

“This is something that should be happening overnight,” he added. “But for political reasons, I guess it’s not happening there.”

Mr. Andrés said he hoped his group, World Central Kitchen, would be able to scale up its nascent effort and eventually bring “huge quantities of food daily into the shores of Gaza,” where United Nations officials have said 2.2 million people are on the brink of famine.

Though the Open Arms, the first ship dispatched by the group, attracted global attention in recent days, the maritime route is so far delivering just a tiny fraction of the aid that the United Nations says is needed to stave off famine. The Open Arms towed a barge to a makeshift jetty off Gaza on Friday with the equivalent of about 10 truckloads of food — far less than the 500 trucks a day aid groups say are needed.

Aid groups — including World Central Kitchen, which has sent more than 1,400 aid trucks into Gaza — have pleaded for Israel to allow more trucks in through more land crossings, saying that only a fast stream of trucks can sustain Gaza’s population.

But only about 150 trucks have been entering Gaza through the two open land crossings each day, according to U.N. data, because of several factors, including lengthy Israeli inspections to enforce stringent restrictions on what can enter Gaza.

The limitations at those entry points have set off a scramble for creative solutions among donors such as the European Union, which helped set up a maritime route from Cyprus to Gaza, and the United States, which has been airdropping aid and is leading an effort to build a temporary pier off Gaza’s coast to accommodate more deliveries by ship. John Kirby, the spokesman for White House National Security Council, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that it would take six to eight weeks to complete construction.

So far, only World Central Kitchen, which Mr. Andrés founded after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, has successfully delivered aid directly to Gaza by ship. The first delivery consisted of about 200 tons of rice, flour and lentils, and canned tuna, chicken and beef.

The second, which was still anchored in the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Sunday night, is set to bring food and equipment to help with future maritime deliveries.

Mr. Andrés on Sunday wondered aloud why Israel’s military was bombing buildings in Gaza that might house the hostages Israel says it wishes to see returned to safety. He also issued a plea for peace, saying he had seen great humanity on both sides of the conflict.

“The time I’ve spent in Israel, the time I’ve been spending in Gaza, seems everybody loves falafel and everybody loves hummus with equal intensity,” said Mr. Andrés, whose group has opened more than 60 community kitchens within Gaza to serve hot meals. “It makes you wonder how people that loves the same foods, they can be at odds with each other.”

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U.S. Air Force members at a base in Jordan on Thursday, loading a plane with aid to be dropped into Gaza.Credit…Dylan Collins/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With the humanitarian crisis worsening in the Gaza Strip, the United States this month started airdropping food and water into the enclave. This weekend, a maritime shipment of aid reached northern Gaza’s shores, the first to do so in nearly two decades. Another batch of essentials is expected to soon set sail for Gaza from Cyprus.

Over the next few weeks, the United States is planning to build a floating dock off Gaza’s shores that the White House has said could eventually help two million meals arrive in Gaza each day.

All of these efforts are designed to get more aid into Gaza, where the United Nations says severe hunger and malnutrition are alarmingly rampant. But diversifying the methods of delivery has not curtailed widespread malnutrition, experts and humanitarian groups say. While those efforts are welcome, they say the best way to stave off a famine is to broker a cease-fire. Talks are expected to resume in the coming days.

“We cannot stack up aid to the level that is needed, and we cannot keep it safe for both people delivering it and the people receiving it as long as there’s still an active war going on,” said Sarah Schiffling, an expert on humanitarian logistics and supply chains at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland.

As long as war endures, though, the main method for delivering aid should be over land, Dr. Schiffling said, because Gaza already has the infrastructure needed in place. Other mechanisms for transporting aid into Gaza by air or sea are “nice to have,” she added, but they are not likely to be as effective in addressing the dire hunger crisis there.

For instance, the 200-ton shipment — containing rice, flour, lentils and canned tuna, beef and chicken supplied by the charity World Central Kitchen — that reached Gaza this weekend was equivalent of what roughly 10 trucks could carry. In comparison, around 150 trucks are entering Gaza each day, which is less than a third of what was entering daily before the war, according to data from the main United Nations aid agency that serves Palestinians in Gaza, known as UNRWA.

Airdrops — including one on Sunday by the U.S. military — have also provided much-needed food and water, but deliver less aid than a convoy moving on the ground. An airdrop on Saturday by the U.S. military, in partnership with the Jordanian Air Force, included about eight tons of food — less than half of what one truck can hold.

While the arrival of additional aid by sea or air would undoubtedly help Palestinians, it serves as a Band-Aid so that a “crisis does not turn into a catastrophe,” said Juliette Touma, the director of communications at UNRWA.

Israel maintains that it has placed no limit on the amount of aid that can enter Gaza and that it supports efforts to flood Gaza with food and supplies. But aid groups point out that Israel has closed all but two border crossings in the south and that its onerous inspections of aid convoys for arms slow down deliveries. Last week, Israel allowed a convoy of trucks carrying food to enter directly into northern Gaza for the first time since the war began.

The desperation and lawlessness in Gaza have also made distributing food and other supplies difficult and, in some cases, deadly. In several attacks over this past month, dozens of Palestinians have been killed or wounded while waiting to receive aid. At least two truck convoys within two weeks have ended in death and disaster after shots were fired as crowds pressed in around them.

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Palestinians who were wounded by Israeli gunfire while waiting for aid, according to health officials, rest on beds at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza this month.Credit…Kosay Al Nemer/Reuters

The United Nations human rights office has documented more than two dozen attacks on Gazans waiting for desperately needed aid since January, with hunger spreading as a result of Israel’s near complete siege, preventing most food and water from entering the tiny enclave.

The office has not blamed any side for the spate of attacks as people wait for aid. In a number of U.N. reports and statements, the office has documented at least 26 such attacks since mid-January.

They include Thursday night’s attack on hundreds of Palestinians who were waiting at the Kuwait traffic circle in Gaza City for an expected convoy of aid trucks. Gazan health officials accused Israeli forces of carrying out a “targeted” attack on the crowd that killed 20, and three witnesses described shelling at the scene.

The Israeli military blamed Palestinian gunmen for the bloodshed and said that it was continuing to review the episode. It said an “intensive preliminary review” had found that no “tank fire, airstrike or gunfire was carried out toward the Gazan civilians at the aid convoy,” though it did not say whether its forces had opened fire at all.

It was at least the 10th such incident in March in which people have been shot and killed or injured while waiting for aid at either the Kuwait or Nabulsi traffic circles, according to the United Nations. They are the two main southern entrances to Gaza City, where the few humanitarian aid trucks entering north Gaza arrive from the south.

In the deadliest incident, more than 100 Palestinians were killed and many more injured when Israeli forces opened fire around a convoy in Gaza City in late February. Witnesses said Israeli forces opened fire toward Palestinians who surged forward toward aid trucks.

The Israeli military said that its forces had opened fire “when a mob moved in a manner which endangered them.” It has said that most people died in a stampede and that some were run over by trucks.

Aid agencies, including from the United Nations, have said that rather than help facilitate humanitarian assistance, Israel has blocked aid from either coming into the Gaza Strip or going to the north, where the hunger situation has become dire.

“Israel’s choices of methods and means of warfare have caused a humanitarian catastrophe,” the United Nations office said in a report this month. “Such choices included the imposition of a siege on Gaza, other restrictions on humanitarian assistance and the distribution of commercial goods, vast destruction of civilian infrastructure, including roads vital for accessing the population, and restrictions on the movement between the north and south of Gaza.”

Israel, which imposed a siege after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack, has said throughout the war that it is committed to allowing as much aid into Gaza as possible. It has blamed delays on U.N. staffing and logistics.

In a statement on Friday, the United Nations human rights office called on Israel to ensure that food and medical care were provided to meet Gaza’s needs. Aid agencies have said that in addition to the Israeli restrictions on relief convoys, looting by hungry Palestinians and growing lawlessness have made it difficult if not impossible to distribute aid.

If Israel cannot provide aid, it “has the obligation to facilitate humanitarian relief activities, including by ensuring the conditions of safety required for such activities,” the human rights office said.

In February, a quarter of the U.N. aid missions planned were facilitated by Israeli authorities, the U.N.’s office of humanitarian coordination said.

U.N. officials and other relief groups have warned that Gaza is nearing famine as a result of inadequate food delivery. At least 27 people, including 23 children, have died of malnutrition, dehydration and lack of baby formula, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

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