Defense Minister Gallant: We have no moral right to stop war

Netanyahu nixes Rafah talks after US allows UNSC resolution demanding Gaza ceasefire

Bilateral tensions appear to reach new high as US withholds veto; Jerusalem says American decision harms war effort, undermines attempts to free hostages

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations, votes to abstain as the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution in Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, its first demand to halt fighting at UN headquarters, Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations, votes to abstain as the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution in Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, its first demand to halt fighting at UN headquarters, Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday canceled a planned trip to Washington by his top aides to discuss plans for an offensive in the Gaza city of Rafah, taking the step after the United States refrained from using a veto to block a United Nations Security Council resolution, backed by Russia and China, that called for a ceasefire without conditioning it on the release of hostages.

In a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel said the US decision was harming the war effort against Hamas and undermining attempts to free hostages.

The statement called the decision “a clear retreat from the consistent US position in the Security Council since the beginning of the war,” and one that “gives Hamas hope that international pressure will allow them to get a ceasefire without releasing our hostages.”

In response, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists: “We’re very disappointed that they won’t be coming to Washington, DC, to allow us to have a fulsome conversation with them about viable alternatives to going in on the ground in Rafah.”

Kirby insisted that the vote “does not represent a shift in our policy,” and said the United States abstained because the text did not condemn Hamas.

“We’ve been consistent in our support [for] a ceasefire as part of a hostage deal,” he said.

“It’s a non-binding resolution, so there’s no impact at all on Israel’s ability to continue to go after Hamas,” Kirby said. That position appears to be shared by South Korea and other members as well.

Algeria, Malta, Mozambique, Sierra Lione have disputed this interpretation. But given that the US can block members from trying to sanction Israel for failing to abide by the resolution, Washington’s interpretation seems to carry more weight.

Netanyahu warned shortly before the vote that he would call off the visit of National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer to Washington if the US veto was not used on UNSC Resolution 2728.

The two senior aides were set to fly to the US capital to hear American proposals for expanded humanitarian aid in Gaza and alternatives to a major IDF ground operation in Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are deployed. The trip was planned at the request of US President Joe Biden after his call with Netanyahu last week.

The UN Security Council on Monday passed the resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, but did not make the former conditional on the latter.

The US abstained from the vote, allowing a ceasefire demand to pass for the first time since the start of the war in October.

The remaining 14 council members voted for the resolution, which was proposed by the 10 elected, non-permanent members of the body.

The United Nations Security Council meets on the situation in the Middle East at the UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

Washington opposed the word “ceasefire” earlier in the nearly six-month-old war in the Gaza Strip and had used its veto power to block previous resolutions.

The resolution “demands an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan respected by all parties leading to a lasting sustainable ceasefire, and also demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.”

The Security Council resolution also “emphasizes the urgent need to expand the flow of humanitarian assistance to and reinforce the protection of civilians in the entire Gaza Strip and reiterates its demand for the lifting of all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale.”

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield argued that the meaning of the resolution passed in the Security Council was that a ceasefire in Gaza must be part of an agreement to release the hostages — though this is not what the text said.

France welcomed the resolution, saying in a tweet by its UN ambassador that “it was time to demand a ceasefire and the release of all hostages, and to call for full humanitarian access & a massive aid to Gaza.”

After the vote, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan blasted the Security Council for what he said was a view that “Israeli blood is cheap.”

“On the one hand, the resolution says that taking civilians hostage is in violation of international law, yet on the other hand — despite the fact that you know Hamas won’t listen to your calls and release the hostages — you demand a ceasefire,” Erdan said in remarks to the body.

The council’s failure to condition a ceasefire on the hostages’ release “not only isn’t helpful, but it undermines the effort to secure their release. It is harmful to these efforts because it gives Hamas terrorists hope to get a ceasefire without releasing the hostages,” he added.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who is currently visiting the US on an official trip, addressed the UN resolution as well, calling it “scandalous.” He said that Israel has “no moral right to stop the war in Gaza until we return all the hostages to their homes.”

“If we don’t reach a clear and absolute victory in Gaza, it could bring a war in the north closer,” he said, and added that he would discuss the “importance of destroying the Hamas regime and returning the hostages to their homes” in his meeting with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz said Israel “has a moral obligation to continue to fight until the hostages are returned and the Hamas threat is removed, and that is what we will do.”

He dismissed the UNSC resolution as “lacking operational significance for us.”

At the same time, he panned Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the Dermer-Hanegbi trip, saying that not only should the delegation set out for the US, but “it would have been good for the prime minister to travel to the US himself, and hold a direct dialogue with President Biden and senior officials.”

Netanyahu’s office said in response that he “rejected the suggestion.”

Also accusing the US of harming efforts to return the hostages, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich charged that the country’s decision not to veto the resolution “plays into Hamas’s hands.”

“The State of Israel will not stop until Hamas is completely destroyed and the hostages are returned,” the ultranationalist lawmaker added. “This is not the first time that an Israeli government has needed to make decisions contrary to the US government’s position.”

One hundred and thirty hostages are still held by terror groups in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw thousands of terrorists burst into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253, mostly civilians.

Netanyahu and the Biden administration have been locked in a growing public spat over a potential ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. During the phone call last week, Biden made it clear to Netanyahu that the US does not want to see a massive IDF ground incursion into Rafah, even if civilians are moved to a safer location in the Gaza Strip.

He requested that Netanyahu send senior officials to hear US proposals for an alternative to a ground operation.

For months, the White House had been saying publicly it would only support an Israeli conquest of the southern Gaza city — the last one in Hamas hands — if Jerusalem made sure to do so in a way that does not endanger the 1.5 million civilians there, many of whom Israel had sent south in the early stages of the campaign.

Netanyahu, along with his war leadership, has insisted that there is no way to defeat Hamas without taking Rafah. Four Hamas battalions remain in the city and — perhaps more importantly — it sits on the border with Egypt. Israel suspects the terrorist organization tunneled under the Gaza border to smuggle in massive shipments of guns, explosives and rockets over the last decade and a half.

Smoke plumes billow after Israeli bombardment over Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 20, 2024, during the ongoing war against Hamas. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The UNSC vote came after Russia and China vetoed a US-sponsored resolution last week that would have supported “an immediate and sustained ceasefire” in the Israeli-Hamas conflict, but which more directly tied that demand to the release of hostages.

Monday’s resolution was also backed by the 22-nation Arab Group at the UN.

A statement issued Friday night by the Arab Group appealed to all 15 council members “to act with unity and urgency” and vote for the resolution “to halt the bloodshed, preserve human lives and avert further human suffering and destruction.”

The vote was originally scheduled for Saturday morning, but its sponsors asked late Friday for a delay until Monday morning.

The Security Council previously adopted two resolutions on the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, but neither called for a ceasefire.

More than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed during the fighting, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry. The figure cannot be independently verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count. Israel says it has killed some 13,000 Hamas terror operatives in battle, as well as some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Gaza also faces a humanitarian emergency, with a report from an international authority on hunger warning on March 18 that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza and that an escalation of the war could push half of the territory’s 2.3 million people to the brink of starvation.

Jacob Magid, Emanuel Fabian and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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