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Biden takes a hard line with Netanyahu; Israel scrambles GPS signals amidst Iran threat

Biden takes a hard line with Netanyahu; Israel scrambles GPS signals amidst Iran threat
A banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden, 8 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / YAHYA ARHAB)

President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that US support for his war in Gaza would depend on new steps to protect civilians, a shift in position for the US leader, who has faced mounting pressure to take a harder line against Israel amid mounting deaths.

Israel scrambled navigational signals over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area on Thursday as the country prepared for a potential Iranian attack on the economic centre.

Israel’s economy minister said he did not trust Qatar to act as a mediator with Hamas as ceasefire talks that could also see the release of hostages held in Gaza remained deadlocked.  

Biden tells Netanyahu US support hinges on protecting civilians

President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that US support for his war in Gaza would depend on new steps to protect civilians, a shift in position for the US leader, who has faced mounting pressure to take a harder line against Israel amid mounting deaths.

Biden in a Thursday phone call with Netanyahu said an Israeli strike that killed seven people delivering food to displaced Palestinians in Gaza was “unacceptable”, according to a White House description of the conversation. The incident further heightened tensions between the two leaders and prompted Democrats to issue fresh calls for placing conditions on US military backing for Israel.  

The US president said Israel must “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers”, the White House said in a statement. 

“He made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the statement said. “President Biden emphasised that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable.” 

Biden did not specify when and how he might shift his approach to the Israel-Hamas war, which is in its sixth month. But his statement was the closest he has come to placing new requirements on US support for Israel’s military operations. 

The US for weeks has urged Netanyahu to curb civilian deaths and has objected to a plan to invade the southern enclave of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians fled during Israel’s war with Hamas. But the air strike on a convoy of workers from World Central Kitchen, a disaster relief group founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, has appeared to mark a breaking point for the White House. 

Israel has said the strike inadvertently hit the aid workers and is conducting an investigation to determine how the strike occurred. 

The president is facing mounting political pressure from progressives, as well as Arab- and Muslim-Americans, who object to his support for Israel’s war effort.  

Israel’s conduct of its war against Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union, has also drawn criticism from Republican Donald Trump, who vocally supported Netanyahu during his presidency.

Trump, in a Thursday interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, said Israel had to finish the war quickly and that it was “losing the PR war”, while declining to answer whether he still remained 100% behind Israel.

“You’ve got to get it over with, and you have to get back to normalcy. And I’m not sure that I’m loving the way they’re doing it, because you’ve got to have victory,” he said.  

Tel Aviv GPS scrambled as Israel awaits Iran revenge attack

Israel scrambled navigational signals over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area on Thursday as the country prepared for a potential Iranian attack on the economic centre.

Traffic was delayed, food delivery was disrupted and transportation applications showed Tel Aviv residents to be in Beirut, Lebanon. The measures were taken by Israeli officials to disrupt GPS-navigated drones or missiles that Iran or its proxies might fire at the country.

Tensions have soared since Monday, when a strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria killed senior Iranian military officials. Iran blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate, though it was unclear whether the Islamic Republic planned to do so directly or via the militias it funds across the Middle East.

Iran’s main proxy group is Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and has been trading fire with Israeli forces almost daily since the war in Gaza erupted in October.

A direct Iranian strike on an Israeli city would be a first and mark a major escalation of hostilities, risking the conflict widening into a regional war.

“We have good intelligence and good early warnings,” Amos Yadlin, a former director of Israeli military intelligence, said at a briefing for foreign journalists in Israel on Thursday. “But it may come, so be tuned.”

Israel hasn’t issued new security directives to its citizens since the Damascus strike, but the military paused leave for all combat units and bolstered manpower in its air defence units.

For months, the military has been interfering with navigational signals in northern Israel and the Red Sea port city of Eilat. Both have come under frequent rocket and drone fire from militants in Lebanon and Yemen.

Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari acknowledged on Thursday evening that the military was responsible for the GPS disruption, the first time that step has been applied to the Tel Aviv area during the six months of the Israel-Hamas war. 

“We are aware that the disruptions are inconvenient, but it is an essential and necessary tool in our defence capabilities,” Hagari said in a televised statement.  

The GPS interference affected numerous applications without warning, including Waze, Google Maps, Gett Taxi, Moovit and Wolt.

Israel and Hamas have been at war since the Gaza-based militant group invaded Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages. 

Israel launched a ground invasion in Gaza a few weeks later. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and the country is under increasing pressure over civilian deaths and a lack of aid distributed in the enclave.   

Israel minister says Qatar untrustworthy as broker for Hamas

Israel’s economy minister said he did not trust Qatar to act as a mediator with Hamas as ceasefire talks that could also see the release of hostages held in Gaza remained deadlocked. 

“They’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Nir Barkat told Bloomberg TV on Thursday, referring to Qatar and accusing the Gulf country of “funding terror all over the world”. 

It was unclear from his comments if Barkat, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was expressing the government’s official stance or speaking personally. The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment. 

Qatar didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Gulf state has for years hosted some political leaders of Hamas. It’s played a key role in mediating talks between Israel and Hamas since their war erupted on 7 October and secured the release of some hostages. 

Qatar has said that the Hamas political office in Doha was opened in 2012 “after a request from Washington to establish indirect lines of communication with Hamas”. 

Qatar has been a close ally of the US and is home to the Middle East’s biggest US military base. It was also instrumental in the evacuation of tens of thousands of people including US soldiers and foreign nationals from Afghanistan in 2021 after the US abruptly withdrew its forces from there.

It has not only emerged as an influential political player in the region, but also become a key supplier of liquefied natural gas to Europe, replacing some Russian piped supplies after Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2022. 

Recent talks in Qatar about a ceasefire and the release of more hostages broke down, with some Israeli officials privately saying Doha wasn’t putting enough pressure on Hamas. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Wednesday that the negotiations were deadlocked over the return of displaced people to their homes in Gaza.

The talks have since moved to Cairo, though those have also stalled, Bloomberg reported earlier on Thursday. Barkat said he trusted Egypt, a country with which Israel has formal diplomatic ties. Qatar and Israel don’t recognise each other, though they’ve shared intelligence for years. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Troy Marshall says:

    I’m no fan of the Iranian regime or the Syrian regime, but Israel attacking an embassy?
    Maybe someone more “switched on” has better insight, but to me this is a cynical ploy to widen the conflict. Wouldn’t President Biden be in an impossible position if Iran enters the fray.
    Netanyahu comes across as a cynical man. This is a man who has legal issues and who’s threatening judicial changes – sounds depressingly familiar.
    As per a recent Gallup poll American support for Israel’s war has dropped below 40%. It’s an election year, sending in troops is a “non starter”. President Biden would have no choice but to switch the tap on full, and keep sending weapons to Netanyahu’s government.

  • John P says:

    Surely an attack on an embassy is a direct attack on the territory of a sovereign nation?

  • Just Me says:

    Israel thought that they had monopoly on genocide, but Netanyahu and the IDF changed that.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    Joe Biden should have followed DM comments 4 months ago to do what he is trying to do now 33000 Palestinians and 7 int aid workers would be alive.
    It’s hypocritical that only 7 international workers call for action yet on 33000 Palestinians he was still sending bombs.
    He must also freeze the war in Ukraine, allow Ukraine to be neutral and start negotiations with Russia and Ukraine, preempting Russia not honouring agreements will not help because Ukraine has no people to salvage or weapons which Russia has in abundance.
    4 months from now you will see them taking this route.
    Israel is morally beyond repair although according to latest polls the citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

  • John P says:

    The worst option is to negotiate with Putin, he has already not honoured a single agreement made with Ukraine. He will take all the Oblasts that he has already illegally annexed into Russia, wait a while and then start a new war. Rinse and repeat until all of Ukraine, Moldovia and possibly the Baltic states are annexed.

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