Smotrich: Step 'broadcasts weakness, gives oxygen to enemy'

In shift, Israel agrees to regularly let fuel into Gaza, drawing outrage in coalition

War cabinet consisting of Netanyahu, Gallant and Gantz permits 2 trucks a day to enter, to maintain water and sewage, and preserve ‘diplomatic maneuvering room to eliminate Hamas’

A truck carrying fuel which crossed into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 15, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
A truck carrying fuel which crossed into Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 15, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Israel consented Friday to regular daily fuel deliveries into the Gaza Strip for the first time since the war against Hamas began last month, marking a significant policy shift and drawing furious reactions from within the government over a move Jerusalem refused to make for many weeks over concerns that the crucial resource will fall into the hands of the terror group.

A statement attributed to an Israeli “diplomatic official” said Jerusalem had agreed to let two fuel trucks enter Gaza every day for UN needs and to support water and sewer systems.

The narrow war cabinet made the decision based on the recommendation of the IDF and Shin Bet and at the request of US officials, according to the statement.

The action is intended “to enable the minimal maintenance necessary for water, sewer and sanitary systems to prevent pandemics that could spread to the entire area, hurting residents of the Strip as well as our own forces and potentially spreading into Israel as well.”

The official asserted that the move “will offer Israel the necessary diplomatic maneuvering room to eliminate Hamas.”

The official added that Israel would be monitoring the delivery of the fuel to ensure it does not reach the terror group. Israel has accused Hamas of plundering the impoverished territory’s fuel to power its tens of thousands of rockets and maintain its massive network of underground tunnels.

Palestinians wait to cook chickens in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Later Friday, National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi said failing to allow fuel for the sewage system would have risked its collapse and the mass spread of disease in Gaza, which would impact both the Palestinian civilians in the enclave and also the thousands of Israeli troops operating there.

“If plague were to break out, we’d have to stop the war,” Hanegbi said, explaining that the IDF would not be able to continue operating amid such a dire humanitarian crisis and that international outcry would reach new heights.

Hanegbi said the war cabinet was reassured by the security chiefs that it was okay to allow in the fuel, which only amounts to 2-4% of what would normally have gone in daily before the war.

However, the policy shift was met with an outcry from far-right coalition parties and other politicians on the right.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said the war cabinet — consisting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Minister Benny Gantz and several observers — “is leading Israel to a wrong policy.”

“So long as our hostages don’t even get a visit from the Red Cross, there is no sense in giving the enemy humanitarian gifts,” he said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said allowing fuel in “is a grave mistake and contradicts the decision of the [full security] cabinet.”

Families of the Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza march along with hundreds of supporters towards the Knesset in Jerusalem, as part of a protest calling for the immediate release of the hostages, near Jerusalem, November 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such a move “broadcasts weakness, gives oxygen to the enemy and allows [Hamas Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar to sit comfortably in his air-conditioned bunker, watch the news and continue to manipulate Israeli society and the families of the abductees.”

The opposition’s Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, tweeted: “Stop fueling the Nazis from Hamas! The statements that ‘not a drop of fuel’ would enter the Strip have turned into allowing thousands of liters unilaterally, without receiving any humanitarian gesture for our hostages.

“I call for this recklessness to be stopped at once.”

Communications systems in Gaza were down for the second day Friday, with no fuel to power the internet and phone networks, causing aid agencies to halt cross-border deliveries of humanitarian supplies.

Abeer Etefa, a Mideast regional spokeswoman for the United Nations’ World Food Programme, claimed on Thursday that Gaza is now receiving only 10 percent of its needed food supplies daily, and dehydration and malnutrition are growing.

“People are facing the immediate possibility of starvation,” she said from Cairo. “The existing food systems in Gaza are basically collapsing.”

With few trucks entering Gaza and no fuel to distribute the food “there is no way to meet the current hunger needs,” she said Thursday.

Meanwhile, in Israel, cities and towns were still being targeted by rockets, though at a significantly slower pace than in the first weeks of the war.

Air raid sirens sounded Friday in the southern city of Ashkelon, as well as in largely evacuated southern communities near the Gaza border. There were no reports of damage or casualties.

Israel troops operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo released on November 17, 2023. (Courtesy: IDF)

Earlier Friday, the IDF said operations in the Gaza Strip had continued overnight, with fighter jets targeting Hamas sites and troops battling Hamas gunmen.

The IDF says it carried out airstrikes against “many” Hamas sites, including weapons storage facilities, as well as against terror operatives.

Footage released by the army showed strikes on Hamas operatives at an observation position in the Beit Hanoun area of northern Gaza. Another video showed a strike on three Hamas operatives with RPGs and assault rifles, also in Beit Hanoun.

Both strikes were carried out after the Hamas cells were identified by the Border Defense Corps’ 636th elite observation unit.

Additionally, Palestinian reports indicated that a Hamas leader, Ahmad Bahar, had been killed in an Israeli strike.

Bahar, 76, previously served as vice president of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Israel did not immediately confirm he had been targeted or killed.

Meanwhile, troops of the Bislamach Brigade and the elite combat engineering Yahalom unit raided a Palestinian Islamic Jihad outpost in northern Gaza, locating Iran-made Badr-3 rockets, drones and other weapons.

Israeli soldiers inspect Iran-made Badr-3 rockets at an Islamic Jihad outpost in northern Gaza on November 17, 2023 (IDF)

The Badr-3 is claimed to have a range of 160 kilometers and a 250-kilogram explosive warhead. Some of the rockets were brought to Israel for research purposes. The Islamic Jihad outpost was later destroyed.

Troops of the Givati Infantry Brigade meanwhile battled Hamas operatives holed up in a school, the IDF said. Several gunmen were killed in the fighting, and the troops later recovered weaponry.

Troops of the Nahal Infantry Brigade, the Paratroopers Brigade and the 460th Armored Brigade raided numerous other Hamas sites overnight, discovering assault rifles, explosive devices, RPGs, anti-tank missile launchers and other equipment, according to the IDF.

The continued fighting comes a day after Israel announced that it has recovered the bodies of two of the hostages during raids into Gaza’s Shifa hospital.

On Friday, the military said it found the body of another hostage, identifying her as Cpl. Noa Marciano. Marciano’s body was recovered in a building adjacent to Shifa, the military said, like that of another hostage found Thursday, Yehudit Weiss.

Family and friends attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Noa Marciano, who was killed in Hamas captivity, at the military cemetery in Modi’in. November 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Soldiers began to raid the hospital this week, amid long-held claims by Israel that Hamas’s main command center is located underneath the medical center. The White House has said that its intelligence confirmed the claim.

Netanyahu said Thursday that one of the reasons for the military raiding Shifa was “strong indications” that some of the hostages taken by Hamas-led terrorists during their October 7 onslaught were being held there.

Speaking about the ongoing operation in the Strip’s largest medical center, Netanyahu told CBS in an interview that the captives had since been removed from the compound.

He said that Israel has “intelligence about the hostages.” But, he noted, “the less I say about it the better.”

Hanegbi said Friday that Israel will only agree to a ceasefire in exchange for the release of a “massive” number of hostages and not a “manipulative release” done by Hamas for PR purposes.

“Only then will we agree to a ceasefire and it will be very limited and short because afterward, we will continue advancing toward our goals for the war,” Hanegbi said.

The National Security Council chairman said the war cabinet was united in its strategy for advancing the release of the hostages, indicating that the ministers believe it will only happen if Hamas feels squeezed and under pressure, rejecting the claim of Qatari mediators that the IDF’s ground incursion complicates the talks.

The hostages were taken when Hamas-led terrorists launched a devastating onslaught on October 7, in which they rampaged through southern communities, killing over 1,200 people, mostly civilians butchered in their homes and at a music festival, and kidnapping some 240 people. In response, Israel embarked on a massive air and ground campaign with the aim of toppling the terror group’s regime in Gaza, which it has ruled since taking over in a 2007 coup.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claims that 11,500 people had been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, including at least 4,710 children and 3,160 women. The figures cannot be independently verified and do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, and also do not differentiate between those killed by Israeli airstrikes or by failed Palestinian rocket launches.

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