Israel and Hamas dig in as pressure builds for a ceasefire in Gaza

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday blasted a UN Security Council resolution calling for a Gaza ceasefire that his country’s top ally, the United States, chose not to block. He said the resolution had emboldened Hamas and he vowed to press ahead with the war. As the war grinds through a sixth month, both Israel and Hamas have rejected cease-fire efforts, each insisting its version of victory is within reach. The passage of the UN resolution has also escalated tensions between the US and Israel over the conduct of the war.

Netanyahu has said Israel can only achieve its aims of dismantling Hamas and returning scores of hostages if it expands its ground offensive to the southern city of Rafah, where over half of Gaza’s population has sought refuge, many in crowded tent camps. The US has said a major assault on Rafah would be a mistake. Hamas says it will hold onto the hostages until Israel agrees to a more permanent cease-fire, withdraws its forces from Gaza and releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

It said late Monday that it rejected a recent proposal that fell short of those demands – which, if fulfilled, would allow it to claim an extremely costly victory. Netanyahu said in a statement that the announcement “proved clearly that Hamas is not interested in continuing negotiations toward a deal and served as unfortunate testimony to the damage of the Security Council decision.” “Israel will not surrender to Hamas’ delusional demands and will continue to act to achieve all the goals of the war: releasing all the hostages, destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and ensuring that Gaza will never again be a threat to Israel.”

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Israel has killed over 32,000 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its tally. The fighting has left much of the Gaza Strip in ruins, displaced most its residents and driven a third of its population of 2.3 million to the brink of famine. The Israeli military announced Tuesday that an airstrike earlier this month killed Marwan Issa, the deputy leader of Hamas’ armed wing in Gaza who helped plan the Oct. 7 attack.

Issa is the highest-ranking Hamas leader to have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war. Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Issa was killed when fighter jets struck an underground compound in central Gaza between March 9 and 10. An Israeli strike late Monday on a residential building in Rafah where three displaced families were sheltering killed at least 16 people, including nine children and four women, according to hospital records and relatives of the deceased. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies arrive at a hospital.

In the face of Hamas’ demands for a more permanent cease-fire, Netanyahu has vowed to resume Israel’s offensive after any hostage release and keep fighting until the militant group is destroyed. But he has provided few details about what would follow any such victory and has largely rejected a postwar vision outlined by the US. That approach has brought him into increasingly open conflict with President Joe Biden’s administration, which has expressed mounting concern over civilian casualties – though it has continued to supply Israel with crucial military aid and back Israel’s aim of destroying Hamas.

The passage of Monday’s resolution by the UN Security Council resolution further deepened the divisions. The resolution called for the release of all hostages held in Gaza but did not condition the cease-fire on it. The Biden administration, which vetoed previous UN resolutions calling for a cease-fire, abstained in Monday’s vote, allowing it to pass. In response, Netanyahu cancelled a planned visit by Israeli officials to Washington during which the US side was set to propose alternatives to a ground assault in Rafah.

The move raised criticism in Israeli media that Netanyahu was straining Israel’s most important alliance in order to placate hard-liners in his governing coalition. “He is prepared to sacrifice Israel’s relations with the United States for a short-lived political-media coup. He has completely lost it,” Ben Caspit, a prominent columnist in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, wrote. He said Netanyahu has been trying US patience by dragging his feet on ensuring more humanitarian aid gets into Gaza and on drawing up post-war plans. “Now, instead of doing everything to placate them, he is flailing about like a baby throwing a tantrum.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, in Washington on a separate trip, held talks Tuesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and with top US defense leaders. Ahead of the meeting, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described civilian casualties in Gaza as “far too high” and aid deliveries as “far too low.” But he also repeated the belief that Israel has the right to defend itself and the US would always be there to help. Gallant said he told Blinken “that Israel will not cease operating in Gaza until the return of all the hostages. Only a decisive victory will bring to an end of this war.”

Hamas’ top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said the UN resolution showed that Israel faces “an unprecedented (level of) political isolation” and was “losing its political cover” at the Security Council. He spoke at a news conference in Tehran after talks with officials in Iran, a key ally of Hamas. The war began on October 7, when Hamas-led militants stormed across the border and attacked communities in southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting around 250 others. It is still believed to be holding about 100 hostages and the remains of 35 others, after most of the rest were freed in November in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The United States, Qatar and Egypt have spent several weeks trying to negotiate another cease-fire and hostage release, but those efforts appeared to have stalled. Majed al-Ansari, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, which is currently hosting the talks, told reporters that the negotiations were ongoing, without providing details. Hamas has previously proposed a phased process in which it would release all the remaining hostages in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the opening of its borders for aid and reconstruction, and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants serving life sentences.