Rifts emerge among top Israeli officials over how to handle the war against Hamas in Gaza

Israeli soldiers overlook the Gaza Strip from a tank, as seen from southern Israel, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM — A member of Israel’s War Cabinet cast doubt on the country’s strategy for releasing hostages held by Hamas, saying only a cease-fire can free them, as the prime minister rejected the United States’ calls to scale back its offensive.

The comments by Gadi Eisenkot, a former army chief, marked the latest sign of disagreement among top Israeli officials over the direction of the war against Hamas, now in its fourth month.


In his first public statements on the course of the war, Eisenkot said that claims the dozens of hostages could be freed by means other than a cease-fire amounted to spreading “illusions” — an implicit criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the five-member War Cabinet and who insists that pursuing the war will win their release.

Eisenkot’s statements came as some relatives of hostages have intensified their protests, a sign of mounting frustration over the government’s seeming lack of progress toward a deal to release the remaining captives.

Meanwhile, communications began to gradually return in Gaza after a nearly eight-day blackout, the longest such cutoff since the war began. The phone and internet blackout made it nearly impossible for people in Gaza to communicate with the outside world or within the territory, hampering deliveries of humanitarian aid and rescue efforts amid continued Israeli bombardment.

For the past week, Gaza residents have struggled to get a signal on their phones. Many head to the beach, where some can pick up a non-Palestinian network. With families scattered across the tiny Mediterranean territory, networks are critical to make sure relatives are still alive as Israeli airstrikes crush homes.

“The people behind me came to check on their friends, family and loved ones,” said Karam Mezre, referring to others sitting with him on a rock at the beach in central Gaza, scanning their phones.

Even when communications return, “it is intermittent and not stable,” said Hamza Al-Barasi, who was displaced from Gaza City.

The blackout has also made it difficult for information to get out of Gaza on the daily death and destruction from Israel’s offensive.

The assault has pulverized much of the Gaza Strip, home to some 2.3 million people, as Israel vows to crush Hamas after its unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into Israel. In the attack, about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and 250 others taken hostage. Israel has said more than 130 hostages remain in Gaza, but not all of them are believed to be alive.

Israel’s offensive, one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, and uprooted more than 80% of the territory’s population.

Israel has also cut off all but a trickle of supplies into the besieged territory, including food, water and fuel, causing what U.N. officials say is a humanitarian disaster.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has provided strong military and political support for the campaign, but has increasingly called on Israel to scale back its assault and take steps toward establishing a Palestinian state after the war — a suggestion Netanyahu has soundly rejected.

Speaking during a nationally televised news conference Thursday, Netanyahu reiterated his longstanding opposition to a two-state solution, saying Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River.”

On Friday, President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke by phone after a glaring, almost four-week gap in direct communication amid fundamental differences over their visions for Gaza once the war ends.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have also said the fighting will continue until Hamas is crushed, and argue that only military action can win the hostages’ release.

But commentators have begun to question whether Netanyahu’s objectives are realistic, given the slow pace of the offensive and growing international criticism, including genocide accusations at the United Nations world court, which Israel vehemently denies.

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