The US and several European governments are quietly pushing Israel to hold off on launching a ground invasion of Gaza following Hamas’s release of two hostages, fearing that the incursion will all but scuttle efforts to secure additional releases for the foreseeable future, a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.
The Western governments currently pressuring Israel each have citizens among those unaccounted for and believe that the more time that passes, the harder it will be to secure the hostages’ release, the official said.
The senior diplomatic official said that the governments recognize that a ground invasion is very likely and are not telling Israel not to launch one at all, but rather hold off to try and see if additional diplomatic efforts can succeed.
Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group that rules the Strip and carried out the deadly onslaught on October 7 in which 1,400 were killed in southern Israel, about 1,000 of them civilians.
Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, the White House walked back US President Joe Biden’s apparent comment that Israel should delay its expected offensive in Gaza until more hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups are released.
While boarding Air Force One earlier, Biden was asked by a reporter whether Israel should push off a military operation in Gaza, to which he responded, “yes.”
“The president was far away. He didn’t hear the full question. The question sounded like ‘Would you like to see more hostages released?’ He wasn’t commenting on anything else,” White House spokesperson Ben LaBolt was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Hamas on Friday night released two hostages — US-Israeli dual citizens Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter Natalie — who were vacationing in Israel from the US when they were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nahal Oz during the terror group’s assault.
It was the first release out of at least 203 hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s infiltration and massacre in Israeli southern communities that started the ongoing war.
Also on Friday, Biden publicly drew a direct link for the first time between the Hamas onslaught on October 7, and efforts by the United States to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel… they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” Biden said at a campaign fundraiser.
“Guess what, the Saudis wanted to recognize Israel,” he said of US efforts to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that appear to have been put on hold following the outbreak of war.
Biden administration officials have suggested that scuttling the normalization effort may have been a motivation of Hamas, but the president’s remarks appear the furthest anyone in his administration has gone to suggest a direct correlation.
Saudi Arabia has been very critical of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza over the past two weeks and US officials have acknowledged that the normalization effort is no longer their immediate focus, as they work to support Israel against Hamas.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, amid his whistle-stop crisis tour of the Middle East that also included visits to Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s former intel chief and ambassador to the US gave a speech on Thursday blasting both Hamas for its onslaught as well as the long-held policies of successive Israeli governments that he said helped lead to the current bloody situation.
While Prince Turki al-Faisal may no longer be in government, he still is seen as close to the royal palace and appears to be the most prominent Saudi figure yet to specifically condemn Hamas.
“I categorically condemn Hamas’s targeting of civilians of any age or gender, as it is accused of. Such targeting belies Hamas’s claim to Islamic identity,” Prince Turki said in an address at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.
“I also condemn Hamas for giving the higher moral ground to an Israeli government that is universally shunned, even by half of the Israeli public, as fascist, miscreant and abhorrent.”
This speech by Prince Turki al-Faisal is, in my view the best to come so far from an #Arab leading figure on the current atrocities in #Gaza & #Israel. Clear condemnation of Hamas's violations against civilians that he anchored in local and Islamic values rather than… pic.twitter.com/BzpkDfRaBb
— Rim Turkmani (@Rim_Turkmani) October 19, 2023
“I condemn Hamas for giving this awful government the excuse to ethnically cleanse Gaza of its citizens and bombing them to oblivion,” he said.
“I condemn Hamas for further undermining the Palestinian Authority as Israel has been doing,” he said. “I condemn Hamas for sabotaging the attempt of Saudi Arabia to reach a peaceful resolution to the plight of the Palestinian people.”
“But equally, I condemned Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian innocent civilians in Gaza, and the attempt to forcibly drive them into Sinai. I condemn Israel’s targeted killing and the indiscriminate arrest of Palestinian children, women and men in the West Bank. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“I condemn Israel for funneling Qatari money to Hamas, a terrorist group as defined by Israel,” he said. Israel allowed tens of millions in Qatari cash to flow through Israeli crossings into Gaza in order to maintain a fragile ceasefire with Hamas.
On Thursday, senior Israeli officials talked up the prospect of an imminent large-scale ground campaign in the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas, making a series of visits to Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed near the territory.
The head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, said the expected ground offensive would be “long and intense,” but ultimately victorious.
In a further sign the start of the ground offensive may be looming, the security cabinet, the body which must approve a ground incursion, met Thursday evening for some six hours. The forum has convened many times throughout the war already.
Recent days have seen growing pressure on the government to devise a clear strategy for how it plans to avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy reoccupation of the Strip, while ensuring the Palestinian enclave is no longer managed by the terror group and no longer poses a threat.
The Biden administration has also been privately pressing Israel to flesh out its exit strategy, Israeli and US officials have said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle have indicated to their American counterparts that Israel had not yet come up with such a strategy and is more focused on the immediate goal of removing Hamas from power in Gaza, the US official said.
On Wednesday, Biden cautioned Israel against getting bogged down in Gaza indefinitely, drawing on the US’s experiences in Afghanistan following its 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
“Justice must be done,” Biden said in Tel Aviv. “But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it… After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing 200-250 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.
The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”
The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza says over 4,100 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes since the Hamas onslaught. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own fighters and the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire that Hamas has blamed on Israel.
Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.
Times of Israel staff, Lazar Berman and agencies contributed to this report.