Hawks call for action after attacks on settlements in the north, while Rishi Sunak urges caution to prevent conflict spreading
The Israeli government is coming under growing pressure from security establishment hawks to launch a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon – but is facing strong opposition from the US, which fears a two-front war would risk igniting a major regional conflict.
Since Israel struck back at Gaza after the Hamas attack on 7 October, the Lebanese-based Islamist militia group has repeatedly fired on Israeli settlements, leading to an Israeli evacuation of the northern border, including the town of Kiryat Shmona. The threat of a major Hezbollah offensive led to calls from hawks for a strike at its sizeable arsenal of missiles.
“We want to focus on the Gaza arena, and to finish the job there. On the other hand, we are getting a lot of pressure from the Israeli population in the north,” a senior Israeli security official told the Observer. “People are saying, we cannot live on the northern border, with Hezbollah less than 100 metres from us and that can cross the line in a few minutes and slaughter us.”
But President Biden used his time in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and visits by top US defence officials in the days before, to urge the Israeli leadership not to risk such a pre-emptive strike on the Iran-backed militia, the New York Times reported, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately cooled on the idea.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak has also been touring the region, seeking to prevent the conflict spreading.
“The overwhelming view I got from everyone I spoke to was that we need to do everything possible to stop a contagion of conflict in the region,” he said.
The Israeli security official confirmed that with forces massed on the Gaza border, primed for a ground offensive, the policy for now was to avoid a two-front war, but he cautioned that decision was also up to Hezbollah.
“So the intent now is to block and contain the northern arena, not to escalate it, not to go to a full war,” the official said, but he added: “We have the capability. We have one eye open and we know they are trying to split our force. We know they are trying to drag us into this confrontation with them, to make us make a mistake and we are trying to do our best not to fall into this trap.”
The US has had less success in convincing Israel to open up a humanitarian corridor into Gaza. A week after US officials first claimed to have struck an agreement with Israel to allow aid relief through, a first convoy of 20 trucks went through the border crossing at Rafah on Friday, but aid officials said it fell woefully short of what was needed.
Under the US-brokered agreement, the trucks delivered aid from the Egyptian Red Crescent to the Palestinian arm of that organisation. Aid officials said they were not expecting a delivery on Sunday, with the next consignment due to be a UN convoy on Monday.
The Israeli government has demanded to see proof that the aid deliveries are not seized or diverted by Hamas before authorising more. A UN official said on Saturday that “verification procedures are still under discussion”.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said: “We have been clear: Hamas must not interfere with the provision of this life-saving assistance.” If that happened, he added, then “as a practical matter it will hinder the international community from being able to provide this aid”.
Aid agencies are also negotiating with Israel to allow fuel, essential for hospital generators and Gaza’s water desalination and pumping system, to be part of the humanitarian convoys.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, told a peace summit in Cairo on Saturday: “The people of Gaza need a commitment for much, much more – a continuous delivery of aid to Gaza at the scale that is needed.” He called for a humanitarian ceasefire to rescue Gaza from what he described as a “godawful nightmare”.
On Friday Guterres visited the Rafah crossing, where substantial quantities of humanitarian aid were waiting for the green light to cross into Gaza. “There I saw a paradox – a humanitarian catastrophe playing out in real time,” he said. “On the one hand, I saw hundreds of trucks teeming with food and other essential supplies. On the other hand, we know that just across the border, there are 2 million people – without water, food, fuel, electricity and medicine. Children, mothers, the elderly, the sick. Full trucks on one side, empty stomachs on the other.”
The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, said the hastily arranged summit in Cairo’s gleaming and grandiose new administrative centre, which was attended mostly by Arab and European leaders, aimed to produce a roadmap for humanitarian relief and to revive hopes of Israeli-Palestinian peace. There was no Israeli delegation and no senior official from the Biden administration. The US was represented by its chargé d’affaires in Cairo, Beth Jones.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, reduced to a bystander in the Israel-Hamas conflict, said Palestinians were being forcibly displaced in Gaza and the West Bank, where harassment from settlers with security force support is driving increasing numbers of people off their ancestral land. “We will never leave our land and we’ll stand tall on our land until the end,” Abbas declared.
After securing the release of two US hostages, Judith and Natalie Raanan, on Friday by urgent regional diplomacy involving Qatari mediation, US officials were scrambling to negotiate the freedom of other Americans before the start of the Israeli ground offensive. Ten US nationals remain unaccounted for after the Hamas attack on 7 October, but it is unclear how many of those are still alive and being held in Gaza.
The Biden administration is also trying to secure permission for hundreds of Palestinian Americans still trapped inside Gaza to be able to leave. Egypt has made any departures from Gaza through Rafah conditional on the delivery of humanitarian aid, but even after the first convoy had passed through the border gate, there was no sign that any Americans had been able to cross. The issue has became a benchmark for US authority in the region.
“There is no higher priority than the safety of US citizens abroad, and US embassy Cairo teams are poised to assist these US citizens,” Blinken said.
“We are working tirelessly, including with partner and allied nations with citizens in Gaza, to secure their ability to safely depart the conflict area.”
Source : The Guardian