After nearly 15 weeks of war, sharp divisions within Israel over the path forward in the Gaza Strip are increasingly coming into the open.
A member of Israel’s war cabinet, a general who lost a son in the conflict, urged in a television interview broadcast late Thursday that the country pursue an extended cease-fire with Hamas to free the remaining hostages, a rebuke of the “total victory” being pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And in a sign of the growing exasperation among parts of the Israeli public over the government’s failure to free the hostages, relatives and supporters of the captives partially blocked traffic on a major highway in Tel Aviv before dawn on Friday.
Israel’s emergency governing coalition is under intense and competing pressures as the war drags on. Right-wing politicians are urging the military to act more aggressively in Gaza, even while Israel is contending with outrage across the globe over the carnage and decimation of so much of the territory. At the same time, the families of hostages are urging concessions to secure their return.
Divisions between Israel and its closest ally, the United States, are also increasingly on display. Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday appeared to rule out a long-stated goal of U.S. foreign policy: a postwar peace process that would lead to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
“Israel must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a news conference on Thursday, referring to an area including occupied territory that Palestinians hope will one day become their independent state. “This truth I tell to our American friends, and I put the brakes on the attempt to coerce us to a reality that would endanger the state of Israel,” he said.
President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday in their first conversation in nearly a month, as the two leaders increasingly diverge over the conduct of the war and the future of Gaza once the fighting ends.
The White House confirmed the call in a brief statement, saying only that the two leaders spoke “to discuss the latest developments in Israel and Gaza.” And in Yemen, the U.S. military hit three Houthi missiles and launchers, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for National Security Council, told reporters on Friday, a pattern of strikes that the White House says will continue until the militant group halts its attacks on Red Sea shipping.
The Israeli official who criticized the prosecution of the war, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, a retired military chief of staff, has laid bare some of the persistent tensions within the wartime government. General Eisenkot said Israel’s leaders must define a vision for how to wind down the war in Gaza, and for its desired outcome. Only a deal with Hamas would secure the release of the hostages, he said, adding that Israel had so far failed in its stated aim of destroying Hamas. More than 240 people were taken hostage on Oct. 7, and about 130 people remain captives in Gaza.
“We didn’t topple Hamas,” General Eisenkot told Uvda, an Israeli news program, in a prerecorded interview. “The situation in Gaza is such that the war aims have yet to be achieved.”
General Eisenkot’s views carry weight in Israel in part because of the personal price he has paid in the war: His 25-year-old son, Master Sgt. Gal Meir Eisenkot, was killed while fighting in Gaza last month, as was a nephew.
Throughout the hourlong broadcast, he appeared to come down on the side of making a deal to liberate the hostages, even if Israel had to accept an extended truce with Hamas. He lamented that a weeklong cease-fire last November, during which groups of hostages were released daily in exchange for imprisoned Palestinians, had lapsed because he said reaching a similar arrangement a second time would be difficult.
Since the beginning of the conflict, at least 25 hostages have been killed in captivity, according to Israeli officials, including at least one in a botched rescue attempt. In December, soldiers misidentified three hostages as combatants and fatally shot them.
General Eisenkot said that a heroic rescue mission — like the 1976 Entebbe raid in which Israeli commandos saved the lives of 103 people aboard a hijacked plane in Uganda — “won’t happen” because the hostages were scattered and mostly being held underground.
Tamir Pardo, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, echoed General Eisenkot’s message in a televised interview Friday evening. Those in Israel speaking about bringing back the hostages while simultaneously eliminating Hamas were “shamelessly lying,” he said.
Though there is broad-based support among Israelis for the Gaza campaign, many have become increasingly exasperated by the lack of progress by Mr. Netanyahu’s government in bringing the hostages home.
At a news conference on Thursday, some relatives of captives accused Israel’s war cabinet of dragging its feet, and called on the government to hammer out an international deal for the hostages. “Stop lying to us,” said Shir Siegel, whose 64-year-old father, Keith Siegel, is among the hostages. “You’re not doing everything you can.”
Underlining the divisions in the war cabinet, General Eisenkot said Mr. Netanyahu carried “sharp and clear” responsibility for the country’s failure to protect its citizens on Oct. 7, when about 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led assault. He urged a new election “within months.”
Although elections could threaten wartime unity, “the Israeli public’s lack of faith in its government is no less dire,” he said.
As Israel’s internal debate has grown louder, a range of world leaders have sounded rising alarm about the suffering of civilians in Gaza and the death toll there, which now exceeds 24,000, according to Gazan health officials.
A top official of Unicef, the U.N. children’s fund, said in a statement Thursday that the conditions there were “some of the most horrific” he had ever seen, describing badly injured children enduring surgeries in dangerous circumstances.
“Unicef has described the Gaza Strip as the most dangerous place in the world to be a child,” said the official, Ted Chaiban, the agency’s deputy executive director. “We have said this is a war on children. But these truths do not seem to be getting through.”
Mr. Chaiban said his recent three-day trip to Gaza included a visit to Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, where the Israeli military says it is trying to crush a Hamas stronghold. The hospital has been deluged by people wounded in airstrikes, and scores of people who were sheltering there have fled in recent days as fighting rages around the complex.
He described meeting a child at the hospital whose spleen had been removed after shrapnel sliced through her abdomen. The spleen plays an important role in the body’s immune system, so the child has to recover in isolation, Mr. Chaiban said, because she is in “a war zone full of disease and infection.”
A 13-year-old at the hospital, Mr. Chaiban said, had developed gangrene from a hand injury and had to undergo an operation to amputate his arm — without anesthesia.
The United Nations has described dire conditions in the enclave, with water scarce, sanitation poor and many children malnourished and sick. Only 15 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are even partly functional, according to the World Health Organization, which has said that Nasser hospital alone treated 700 patients on Monday, more than double its typical caseload.
Nadav Gavrielov and Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.