Jubilant over the hostage rescue, Netanyahu knows more difficult times lie ahead

Daring Gaza op provided a welcome boost to national morale but is unlikely to mark a turning point, with the fate of the remaining captives in the balance and Hamas obdurate

Family and friends of the remaining hostages held in the Gaza Strip launch a blimp calling for their release in Tel Aviv, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Family and friends of the remaining hostages held in the Gaza Strip launch a blimp calling for their release in Tel Aviv, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The operation to rescue Noa Argamani, Shlomi Ziv, Almog Meir Jan and Andrey Kozlov from their captivity at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip was postponed four times late last week and into the weekend. The initial go-ahead was given on Thursday evening, but the special forces waited for intelligence and operational maturity – before finally, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, they were given the green light.

For the third time since October 7, Israel’s security forces achieved an intelligence and operational success worthy of appreciation and praise. This had happened on October 28, 2023, with the rescue of Ori Megidish in the heart of Gaza Strip; on May 1, with the rescue of Louis Har and Fernando Marman from the Shaboura refugee camp in Rafah; and then, on Saturday, in Nuseirat.

But as successful as this latest operation was, and as welcome the burst of joy and the importance to national morale, it is doubtful that it will serve as a turning point. It is likely, indeed, that Hamas has rushed to tighten security around the other hostages, and perhaps moved them to new hiding places.

Every rescue operation needs to be planned to the smallest detail. In the case of Saturday’s, the planning spanned weeks – and, during that time, several acts of diversion were apparently taken.

In recent weeks, military intelligence and Shin Bet provided accurate information about the whereabouts of the four hostages – including real-time movements – making it possible for the extraction teams to practice on an accurate model of the buildings where the hostages were held.

A senior army source who was part of the planning told The Times of Israel, on condition of anonymity, that the Saturday operation was reminiscent in planning and execution of the legendary Entebbe Operation in 1976, in which the IDF rescued over 100 hostages kidnapped to Uganda.

Israeli hostages pictured reuniting with family after their rescue from Hamas captivity in Gaza on June 8, 2024. Top L-R: Almog Meir Jan with his family, Noa Argamani with her father. (Israel Defense Forces) Bottom L-R: Shlomo Ziv reunites with his sister and cousin (Hostages and Missing Families Forum), Andrey Kozlov meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Maayan Toaf / GPO)

Palestinian casualties

Palestinians claim that the Israeli forces used a humanitarian aid truck carrying furniture to infiltrate the center of Nuseirat unnoticed, which the IDF has denied but which has ignited conspiracy theories in Gaza that Israel and the Arab countries behind the humanitarian aid efforts have joined forces in military action. View of the IDF’s helicopters taking off from Gaza with the hostages from nearby the US-built aid pier only fueled these conspiracy theories.

Hamas was quick to embrace this narrative. However, in a statement, the terror organization refrained from mentioning the Arab states and accused only the United States of cooperating with Israel.

Hamas was also quick to propagate information on social media, and subsequently in the international media, claiming there were more than 270 Palestinian fatalities, many of whom were children and women. While this number should be treated with great caution, it is clear that a military operation in the heart of Nuseirat’s overcrowded center would result in civilian deaths.

Wary of the harsh international criticism, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit briefed foreign media immediately after the operation was over, stressing the presence of Hamas operatives and hostages in the heart of the civilian population, as part of Hamas’s practice of using civilians as human shields.

Once the rescue force was met with violent resistance when leaving the second building, where the three male hostages were held, it was IDF fire — both from the ground and from the air — that allowed the rescue team and the hostages to escape the area. This is when most of the civilians were injured. This is also when Yamam officer Chief Insp. Arnon Zmora was mortally wounded. He died from his wounds shortly after.

Milking the moment

The rescue operation was not approved by the full war cabinet, but rather only by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center), IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Military Intelligence chief Aharon Haliva, and the military’s envoy to hostage negotiations Nitzan Alon meet to approve a hostage rescue operation, in an image released by the Defense Ministry on June 8, 2024. (Defense Ministry)

It is reasonable to assume that, considering that war cabinet minister Benny Gantz was about to quit the wartime government, Netanyahu was unwilling to share the details of the operation with him. For Netanyahu, this was a gamble: If the operation had failed, it would have been easier for Netanyahu to account for it and share the responsibility for its failure had Gantz been included.

Hours after the operation was over, Gantz revealed that he had known about the operation ahead of time; the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, briefed him about it on Thursday night. Despite knowing he wouldn’t be able to announce his and his National Unity party’s withdrawal from the government immediately after such an operation, Gantz chose to schedule a press conference for Saturday evening, when his ultimatum to Netanyahu expired – so as to convey business as usual and not alert Hamas that something was afoot.

In contrast, Netanyahu fully exploited the operation’s success for his public relations. While Gallant sufficed with a statement praising the security forces, Netanyahu arrived at Sheba Medical Center, took pictures with the families and the hostages, and rushed to make a statement to the press at the hospital (with no questions allowed, of course).

It’s worth noting that to date, the prime minister has yet to personally speak to the families of Nadav Popplewell, Chaim Peri, Yoram Metzger and Amiram Cooper, four hostages who were declared dead just days earlier, to convey his condolences.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan after visiting four rescued hostages and their families there, June 8, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)

The question now is how Saturday’s successful rescue will affect the negotiations to release the 120 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza. Right now, these talks are on hold as all sides wait for Hamas’s response to the latest Israeli proposal for a deal, approved by the war cabinet and detailed by US President Joe Biden.

Hamas swallowed the two previous Israeli rescue operations and continued the negotiations. But it is quite possible that Hamas, stung and with fewer hostages, will now harden its demands.

Hamas’s leadership issued a relatively quick announcement after it recovered from the shock of the operation in Nuseirat: “We have a lot of hostages. The release of some of them after eight months will not change Israel’s strategic failure.”

Friends of Almog Meir Jan, one of the four Israeli hostages rescued from Gaza, pose for a photo with his picture as they gather with others outside the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on June 8, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israel would not have expected anything other than obduracy from Hamas, but the statement was a reality check — a reminder of the challenges that lie ahead.

The IDF is set to complete its operation in Rafah in the next few weeks, and it is doubtful whether it will ultimately carry out a major operation in the two remaining refugee camps — central Gaza’s Nuseirat and Deir al-Balah.

Israel went a long way in its latest proposal, which received American, Qatari and Egyptian backing, but it has not yet yielded the long-awaited breakthrough. And Gantz’s Sunday night departure from the government further reduces Netanyahu’s operating leeway vis-à-vis the far-right factions in his coalition.

That might be why Netanyahu called on Gantz, however improbably, to stay in the government. Amid the jubilation of Saturday morning’s successful rescue, Netanyahu knows that more difficult times lie ahead.

Translated and edited from the original Hebrew on Zman Yisrael.

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