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Israel and Hamas discuss a broader hostage deal, but a renewed assault still looms

Government rhetoric and public opinion in Israel seem unequivocal: Sooner or later the intense military campaign in the Gaza Strip must and will resume.
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The gunfire, bombardment and cries of anguished relatives have for days now largely been replaced by the relief and joy of hostages reunited with loved ones and growing diplomatic murmurs of an extended cease-fire.

But while the U.S. and others push for a broader deal, government rhetoric and public opinion in Israel seem unequivocal: Sooner or later the intense military campaign in the Gaza Strip must and will resume.

A four-day pause in Israel’s war against Hamas has been extended by two days. And CIA Director William Burns is in Qatar, which hosts Hamas leaders and has mediated negotiations, focusing on ways to extend the reprieve so more hostages can be released, according to a senior administration official.

Negotiations now include groups other than women and children, said a diplomat with knowledge of the talks, who said the proposal is for a pause longer than two or four days.

"Ideally we would not keep coming back to the table but instead agree a longer pause to get all the remaining hostages released," the diplomat told NBC News.

It is just one of the many pressures being visited on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: from the U.S., to moderate his military response; from the families of the hostages, to prolong the pause in fighting; and from members of his hard-right government, who disavow any letup at all, regardless of hostages, in the war against Hamas.

While the military campaign has paused in the past week to secure the release of dozens of hostages, Netanyahu and his officials have been clear that uprooting Hamas is still very much the plan.

Palestinians flee north Gaza and move southward, near Gaza City
A woman walks with a child through the mud during a pause in fighting near Gaza City on Monday. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

In a speech Sunday, Netanyahu said that the pause would be “welcome” but that then “we will go to realizing our goals with full force: eliminating Hamas, ensuring that Gaza will not go back to being what it was.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said at a news briefing Tuesday that his troops were ready to resume fighting “today” if necessary and were using the pause for “learning” and “strengthening readiness” to “dismantle Hamas.”

‘Our eyes are on the prize’

Such statements are being made against a backdrop of colossal pressure on the Israeli government being exerted from multiple sides. Following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 were kidnapped, the vast majority of Israelis support the goals of toppling Hamas and freeing the hostages — more than 90%, according to a poll the Israel Democracy Institute released Friday.

But there is a latent tension within that consensus.

The same survey said 49% of people deemed the hostages most important, while 37% prioritized toppling Hamas. The first group is led by the victims’ families, who have campaigned tirelessly for a longer cease-fire, partly because they fear their loved ones will be killed in the fighting. 

“Our eyes are on the prize, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Zohar Avigdori, whose sister-in-law, Sharon Avigdori, and nephew, Noam, were kidnapped from the Be’eri kibbutz and released Saturday. He spoke in a call with journalists Tuesday of the families’ “determination of the pause not stopping until the last hostage is back.” But he acknowledged there was a “concern” that won’t happen.

In fact, Israel has indicated that it may expand its ground campaign into southern Gaza, where it told northern residents to flee but where it says some Hamas leaders have also taken refuge.

That’s prompting concern in the U.S. government.

The U.S. has been calling on Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians, 15,000 of whom have been killed so far, including more than 5,000 children, according to Palestinian officials. And a senior Biden administration official said the White House doesn’t want a repeat once the fighting restarts.

“You cannot have the sort of scale of displacement that took place in the north replicated in the south,” the official said on a call with journalists. “We don’t support them moving in the south unless or until they can demonstrate a plan that accounts for the additional civilian life that is now in south Gaza.”

And despite the devastation wrought on the Palestinian enclave, the challenges of truly eliminating Hamas from Gaza were highlighted in a video the militant group released over the weekend showing it handing over prisoners in a neighborhood of Gaza City, which had been the focus of Israel’s assault in the days before the truce.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday November 26, 2023 met with commanders and troops inside the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with troops in the Gaza Strip on Sunday. EyePress News / Reuters

The pause has allowed Palestinians there some semblance of normal life, with people setting out fruit and vegetable stalls and cooking over makeshift stoves, albeit through the grief and amid the rubble of their lives.

Gazans are clear they need a fuller cease-fire, and the war’s diplomatic brokers have expressed some hope that the truces could build to one. But few in Israel expect anything but a resumption in the fighting — and sooner rather than later.

At some point, “we will run out of hostages, or Hamas will want a new deal for men and soldiers,” said Aviv A. Oreg, a major in the Israeli reserves whose career has included senior roles within Israel’s intelligence services. “And at that point Israel will have to decide what to do. Right now I think that all of Israel is in support of fighting Hamas.”

Ultimately Netanyahu’s own political future may play a part. He faces nosediving opinion polls and a looming court case over allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.

His hold on power relies on a fragile coalition with right-wing parties, whose influence could be seen Tuesday as, even amid the temporary truce, his Cabinet approved a contentious wartime budgetary change that will direct more money toward security for Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law and whose inhabitants have been accused of rising violence and intimidation against Palestinians.

Given the widespread loss of faith in its institutions after Oct. 7, “Israel cannot allow itself to stop the war with any less than the goal, which is uprooting Hamas politically and militarily from the Middle Eastern panorama,” said Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. It poses distinct challenges for Netanyahu, he said. “Why? Because Israel has to repair the damage and the loss of confidence with its own society.”

For people such as Avigdori, that won’t be easy or quick.

“In terms of repairing the contract between the Israeli state and its citizens, I think it will take much, much longer,” he said. “We are talking decades here.”