Netanyahu battles for survival amid stalling war effort

Calls for hostage deal and right-wing anger over Gaza strategy put more pressure on Prime Minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced the intention to invade the city of Rafah
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Fresh doubt has been cast over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future after a significant withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from Gaza intensified anger on both sides of the political spectrum over his war strategy.

The pulling of all ground troops from the southern city of Khan Younis leaves only one Israeli brigade in Gaza, the smallest force since the war began six months ago.

It comes as calls mount for Mr Netanyahu's resignation and for a deal to obtain the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in recent weeks.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday added to the pressure by saying he would support a hostage agreement, even though it is “a deal we might not like”.

“But it's doable and therefore needs to be made,” he said.

The growing push for an agreement with Hamas sets Mr Netanyahu on a potential collision course with far-right members of his own coalition government, who fear such a deal might grant too many concessions to the militant group and weaken Israel’s war effort.

Mr Netanyahu insists the war is far from over and that an operation in Rafah will go ahead despite international fears that it would be catastrophic for about 1.5 million Gazan civilians sheltering in the city.

Mr Netanyahu said Israeli victory over Hamas requires “entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there”.

“It will happen. There is a date,” he added.

Date set for Rafah invasion, says Netanyahu

Date set for Rafah invasion, says Netanyahu

Reports emerged on Tuesday that Israel was buying 40,000 tents to prepare for a civilian evacuation of Rafah, which would pave the way for Israeli forces to attack the four remaining Hamas battalions believed to be stationed in the city.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote on X that if Mr Netanyahu “decides to end the war without a substantial attack on Rafah to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue as premier”.

Former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich told The National that Mr Netanyahu's announcement that a date for the attack had been set was intended to curb political dissent within the cabinet.

"No one knows when [the date is] but it is hanging there and anyone who now takes a significant move … will be blamed for getting in the way,” Mr Freilich said.

Mr Netanyahu "tries to placate everyone this way", Mr Freilich added. "It is smart politics, maybe less so statesmanship.”

The Prime Minister insisted again on Tuesday that the military offensive in Rafah would go ahead to achieve Israel's goal of eliminating all Hamas brigades in Gaza. "There is no force in the world that will stop us," he said.

The Biden administration is believed to be taking a particularly keen interest in the latest round of hostage talks, amid growing anger in Washington over Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza.

Political sources in Israel's unity government, which was formed after the deadly Hamas-led attacks on October 7, told The National last week there was mounting fear among centrist officials that US anger could lead to serious diplomatic repercussions.

Mr Biden is reported to have been particularly angry about an Israeli strike last week that killed seven workers from aid organisation World Central Kitchen and conveyed this in a phone call with Mr Netanyahu.

Shortly after the call, Israel announced the opening of two new entry points for aid to Gazans.

Record numbers of lorries carrying aid have entered Gaza since.

Gazans uncertain about next phase of war

Mahmoud Ajour, who is sheltering in Rafah, says he is confused about what lies in the days ahead.

"We already faced many difficulties when we left Gaza city in search of a place to stay," Mr Ajour, 39, told The National.

He is debating moving to Mawasi, a small coastal area west of Khan Younis, or to where his home used to stand in Gaza city. "I will build a tent over the rubble of my home, if only they would allow us to go back," he said.

Rami Al Moghrabi, 36, also fled to Rafah after his wife was killed and one of his children injured when Israel bombed his home in Gaza city.

"Enough is enough. The war should end so that people can reorganise their lives," he said. "My son has burns all over his body. The hospital here is treating him but he requires advanced medical care. I lost my wife and I do not want to lose my son.

"The only destination for me now is to return to Gaza [city]. Otherwise, I will not move from my current location."

Rafah resident Ahmad Nasser, 40, is worried about the prospect of an Israeli invasion.

"What the Israeli army did in Khan Younis and Gaza city worries us because they did not respect civilians – they will destroy everything," he said.

“There is nowhere to go. Khan Younis is completely destroyed and lacks any signs of life now, while central Gaza area is already crowded with people."

Updated: April 10, 2024, 8:59 AM