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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 9 FEBRUARY 2024

Netanyahu baulks at hostage deal, Blinken voices hope; US drone strike kills Iran-backed militia leader

Netanyahu baulks at hostage deal, Blinken voices hope; US drone strike kills Iran-backed militia leader
Israel and the US offered conflicting interpretations of Hamas’ response to a proposal to pause fighting and release dozens of hostages, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) seeming to reject it out of hand and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying it opened space for a deal. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Ronen Zvulun / Pool | EPA-EFE / Atef Safadi)

Israel and the US offered conflicting interpretations of Hamas’ response to a proposal to pause fighting and release dozens of hostages, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeming to reject it out of hand and Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying it opened space for a deal.

The US killed the commander of an Iran-backed militia with a drone strike in Baghdad on Wednesday night, as the White House targets groups responsible for a deadly attack on a US base last month. 

About 40% of Israeli Jews say it’s more important to defeat Hamas than to bring home the hostages, polls show.

Netanyahu baulks at Israel-Hamas deal even as Blinken voices hope

Israel and the US offered conflicting interpretations of Hamas’ response to a proposal to pause fighting and release dozens of hostages, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeming to reject it out of hand and Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying it opened space for a deal.

“While there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’ response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” Blinken told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv. “We also see space in what came back to pursue negotiations to see if we can get to an agreement, and that’s what we intend to do.”

The remarks from Blinken were in keeping with his relatively upbeat tone as the US, along with Qatar and Egypt, try to broker an agreement to bring a halt to the fighting that began when Hamas, which is labelled a terrorist group by the US and the European Union, attacked Israel on 7 October. The Biden administration says a halt in the fighting is the only way to reduce regional tensions that have pulled the US in deeper.

Those comments stood in contrast to remarks from Netanyahu, whose assessment of the Hamas response was far more downbeat.

“Surrendering to the delusional demands of Hamas not only will not lead to the release of the hostages, it will only invite another massacre,” Netanyahu said in a news conference hours before Blinken spoke. He also said Israel would press on with its fight. 

“There is no other solution than total victory,” Netanyahu said. “If Hamas survives in Gaza, it is only a matter of time until the next massacre, and the evil axis of Iran and its affiliates will continue its campaign of killing and aggression unhindered.”

The conflicting public comments highlight the difficulty in reaching any agreement for a temporary truce or a more enduring ceasefire in Gaza. Blinken’s visit has involved talks with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Israel.

Blinken is on his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’ 7 October attack. The US has sought to ease the fighting and moderate Israel’s response after it launched a punishing military campaign on the Gaza Strip that’s killed some 27,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

Israel would be willing to work out an arrangement where Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar goes into exile in exchange for the group releasing all the hostages and ending its government in Gaza, NBC News reported, citing a half-dozen Israeli officials and senior advisers.

In some of his sternest remarks yet, Blinken again urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it pursues its effort to stamp out Hamas.

“Israelis were dehumanised in the most horrible way on October 7, the hostages have been dehumanised every day since, but that cannot be a licence to dehumanise others,” Blinken said. “The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7.”

“We cannot, we must not lose sight of that,” he said. “We cannot, we must not, lose sight of our common humanity.”

US kills Iran-backed militia leader in Baghdad drone strike

The US killed the commander of an Iran-backed militia with a drone strike in Baghdad on Wednesday night, as the White House targets groups responsible for a deadly attack on a US base last month.

The leader belonged to Kataib Hezbollah and was “responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces in the region,” the Pentagon said. “The United States will continue to take necessary action to protect our people.”

It said there appeared to be no collateral damage and no civilian casualties from the strike.

Kataib Hezbollah identified the target as Abu Baqer Al-Saaedi. The Iraqi government criticised the strike and said it would strengthen Baghdad’s resolve to get US forces to leave the country.

“Set your clocks for revenge time,” Kataib Hezbollah said on Telegram on Thursday.

The Shia paramilitary group claimed a drone attack in Jordan in January that killed three US soldiers and wounded dozens.

They were the first US troops killed in an attack since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on 7 October, roiling the wider Middle East. US bases in Syria and Iraq have since been assaulted more than 100 times by Iran-backed groups using missiles and drones, causing the US to respond with its own strikes against the militants.

Kataib Hezbollah, which roughly translates from Arabic as Brigades of God, had said it was suspending operations against the US in the aftermath of the Jordan deaths. Some analysts said that was a signal Iran had pressured them to avoid escalating tensions with Washington even further.

The commander was travelling in a car when he was hit and was the sole target, though there may have been other people in the vehicle, according to a US official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive information.

The US launched heavy strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Iraq and Syria late last week as part of its response to the Jordan base attack. US officials described those as the start of a more aggressive campaign against militants to whom Tehran provides money and training. 

The violence underscores the high risk of the fallout from the Israel-Hamas war worsening, even as the US says it’s trying to prevent that very outcome. 

The US has also targeted Iran-backed Houthi militants in a bid to stop their attacks on ships around the southern Red Sea. While the Houthis, based in Yemen, are still assaulting vessels with drones and missiles, the US says its strikes have weakened the group’s firepower.

So far, President Joe Biden has declined to conduct attacks on Iranian territory, something the US hasn’t done for decades.  

Iran backs anti-Israel and anti-US groups across the region. Together, they are often called the “axis of resistance.” They include Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as the Houthis and militias in Syria and Iraq. 

Hostage rescue less vital to many Israelis than defeat of Hamas

The Hostage Families Forum occupies three floors of a high-end Tel Aviv office building. Under the motto “Bring Them Home Now!” the group generates millions of dollars in donations and gets worldwide publicity from international tours by stricken relatives. 

With so much global attention on the hostages — about 100 remain in Gaza after being taken by Hamas militants on 7 October — it may seem from afar like the main obstacle to their release is the will of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose war aims have become central to his political survival.

As a headline in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper put it on Wednesday, “Netanyahu Sacrificed Israeli Hostages in Gaza for Empty Slogans and Political Gain.” That evening, the PM rejected the most recent Hamas offer as “delusional” and said Israel has only one option — “total victory” over the Iran-backed group.

And while Netanyahu’s thinking clearly links to his own political future — he relies heavily on pro-war, right-wing support — he’s far from alone in this view of priorities. About 40% of Israeli Jews say it’s more important to defeat Hamas than to bring home the hostages, polls show. 

Even some hostage families agree. A group has broken away from the main forum over objections to the focus on their loved ones above that of military victory.

“We care about the hostages but we care about the future of Israel,” said Zvika Mor, whose son Eitan (23) was taken hostage while working as a security guard at the Nova music festival when Hamas operatives embarked on a mass slaughter. “We think that the war is the main thing.”

Read more: A growing divide between Israel and the world: Balance of Power

Any deal that would free Mor’s son would probably involve releasing Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails. “We think it‘s crazy that the people of Israel will release terrorists who will then kill Jews again,” he told reporters. Eitan, the oldest of eight children, has previously told the family “If I am taken hostage, do not do a prisoner swap to let me free,” Mor said.  

Israeli surveys show that the divide between whether to focus on the hostages or military victory closely follows the split between left and right. While conservative and religious voters support the war as a top priority, the more secular and left-leaning say the release of hostages should come first. Mor lives in a settlement on the West Bank, one of two main Palestinian territories along with Gaza.

A number of reserve soldiers who’ve been pulled out of Gaza as the military reconfigures its operations say they don’t want to come home before finishing the job. There are Facebook pages of soldiers saying that if they’re captured in battle, they don’t want Palestinian prisoners released in a deal for their freedom. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    Just as an aside. Can anyone confirm the number of hamas terrorists/freedom fighters killed. Not the estimated 1 for every 2 civilians. Surely the IDF counts each Hamas it kills?

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