ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Jake Sullivan to visit Israel later this week -- officials

Israeli official denies divide with US over war, says support is ‘public and private’

Senior official warns pressure may increase for more aid to Gaza, denies bottleneck is Israel’s doing; says latest assessments don’t show imminent risk of epidemic in Strip

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak to reporters prior to a meeting in Tel Aviv, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak to reporters prior to a meeting in Tel Aviv, Nov. 30, 2023. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

A senior Israeli official on Sunday dismissed the growing perception of a divide between Jerusalem and Washington concerning the IDF’s prosecution of the war in Gaza against Hamas.

“There’s 100% agreement from the US on our goals for the war both in public and private,” the senior Israeli official said in a briefing with The Times of Israel.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said last week that Israel’s war aims of ending the rule of the Hamas group in Gaza and returning the roughly 138 remaining hostages are “very legitimate.” However, he and other US officials continue to prod Israel over mounting civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas-controlled health ministry says death toll is over 18,200. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, who the Israel Defense Forces said last week are being killed at a two-to-one ratio.

Israel launched its war aimed at eradicating Hamas after thousands of terrorists from Gaza invaded southern Israel on October 7, massacring some 1,200 people and taking roughly 240 as hostages.

“There is a gap between the intent [to avoid harm to Gaza civilians] and the results, and that’s the gap that we’re trying to make sure is closed” during the war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday.

The senior Israeli official defended the IDF’s conduct, arguing the army is now operating in more specific areas than it did in northern Gaza. Before entering such locations, it has called on Palestinian civilians to evacuate to either the al-Mawasi safe zone on the southwestern coast, Rafah further south or one of the 150 shelters recognized by the military liaison to the Palestinians.

Rights groups have rejected this approach, claiming civilians are still coming under fire after evacuating and that the IDF has yet to issue directives allowing civilians to return to areas from which they’ve been told to evacuate, shrinking the amount of territory that is available for the population of 2.3 million.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip set up a tent camp in the al-Mawasi area, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The senior Israeli official noted the “incredibly difficult conditions” the IDF is facing given that Hamas uses tunnels and hides among civilians, making for more complex urban combat conditions.

The US has privately expressed understanding of this difficulty, the senior Israeli official maintained, saying Washington’s messaging is more nuanced behind closed doors.

“We definitely feel the support at all levels,” the official said, pointing to the American veto of a “hostile” resolution at the UN Security Council over the weekend, which called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. “The support the US has shown us is nothing short of extraordinary.”

“Minister [Yoav] Gallant and Secretary [Lloyd] Austin are in constant communication, and there’s complete transparency between them,” the official said of the two defense chiefs who at the onset of the war spoke almost daily and have continued to do so at least twice a week.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will visit Israel at the end of the week, an American and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday, as Washington maintains its near-weekly diplomatic visits by top Biden officials to coordinate with Jerusalem on the war against Hamas.

Sullivan plans to discuss both efforts to expand humanitarian aid into Gaza and efforts to protect civilians in the enclave, in what will be his first trip to Israel since the war began.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The trip by US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser will come a week after Vice President Kamala Harris’s national security adviser Phil Gordon and one of his deputies, Ilan Goldenberg, held meetings in Israel and the West Bank with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The week before that, Blinken visited for a similar round of meetings.

The Israeli official who confirmed Sullivan’s planned trip said Jerusalem expects a senior US delegation to be in town on a near-weekly basis for the foreseeable future, as the war in Gaza remains at the top of the administration’s foreign policy agenda.

Deadline or no deadline?

Blinken privately told Israel’s cabinet earlier this month that it has international backing to prosecute the current phase of the war, while Finer said publicly that the US was not setting a deadline for Israel.

The senior Israeli official said the current stage of the war was “less a derivative of time than achievements on the ground. There are things we need to achieve before we can move on to the next phase.”

As for planning for the day after the war, the senior official acknowledged that Israel “is still in its early stages. But we know that it won’t be Israel or Hamas ruling Gaza. We have no plans to reoccupy Gaza.”

“That’s a really important starting point, and we’ll have to take it from there,” the senior Israeli official said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asserted that Israel will maintain a buffer zone as well as overall security control over Gaza, leaving some in Washington to fear that he is laying the groundwork for permanent Israeli reoccupation of the Strip. Israeli officials have asserted they will be able to maintain control over Gaza without necessarily requiring boots on the ground.

Palestinians check a house destroyed in an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza Strip, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Trouble ahead?

Jerusalem could face increased pressure from the US in the coming weeks regarding the amount of humanitarian aid getting into Gaza, posited the senior Israeli official briefing The Times of Israel. Washington is pushing for aid to exceed the 200-plus trucks that were entering Gaza each day during a seven-day truce last month. The volume has lagged since, with just 100 trucks entering Gaza on Sunday, according to the UN.

But the slowdown is not due to Israel, which has been inspecting hundreds of trucks every day, the senior Israeli official asserted, arguing that assistance has been slowed due to Hamas efforts to steal aid and block it from reaching civilians.

COGAT, the military liaison, has also blamed the UN and Egypt for failing to keep up with the levels of aid Israel is approving for Gaza, adding that it has implemented tactical pauses and humanitarian corridors to securely deliver the aid.

International actors have rejected this, insisting that aid distribution is not sustainable in the midst of Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza, which is now more focused on the south near where aid is supposed to enter and be distributed to over one million displaced Palestinians.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid are seen near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on December 10, 2023 (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

The Israeli official said the IDF’s latest assessment has not revealed a risk of an imminent epidemic in Gaza, even as the matter continues to be watched closely.

The World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Sunday, though, that there were “worrying signals of epidemic diseases” in Gaza amid the ongoing fighting.

Tedros told the WHO executive board that “ideal conditions” were being created for disease to spread in the enclave. “On average, there is one shower unit for every 700 people and one toilet for every 150 people,” he said, pointing to heightened levels of bloody diarrhea, jaundice and respiratory infections.

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