Israel's euphoria over the hostage rescue may be fleeting

For months, Israelis had heard only of hostages killed or reported dead in Gaza. The “lucky” families were those whose loved ones' remains were recovered by soldiers, at great risk, and brought home to Israel for burial.

Thus, Saturday's daring rescue of four living hostages immediately boosted morale in Israel and delivered at least a momentary victory for the country's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But by Sunday the euphoria was already giving way to a harsher reality. The heavy air and ground attack that accompanied the rescue killed dozens of Palestinians, including civilians, according to Gaza health officials, belying Israel's claims that the operation was a resounding success, at least internationally. And the operation failed to resolve any of the profound dilemmas and challenges bedeviling the Israeli government, according to analysts.

Eight months into the harsh war in Gaza, Israel still appears to be far from achieving its stated goals of dismantling Hamas' military and governance capabilities. And Israelis fear time is running out for many of the hostages in Gaza. About a third of the 120 remaining have already been declared dead by Israeli authorities.

At the same time, the Israeli leadership is grappling with escalating hostilities along its northern border with Lebanon and struggling with growing international isolation and scorn over the war in Gaza, including allegations of genocide that have been heard by the Court international justice system in The Hague. .

The rescue mission “does not solve any of the problems Israel has been facing since October 7,” Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli political columnist, wrote in the popular Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Sunday.

“It doesn't solve the problem of the north; it does not solve the problem of Gaza; and it does not solve the host of other problems that threaten Israel on the international stage,” she added.

Sunday's decision by Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's former military chief and main political rival, to withdraw his centrist National Unity party from the wartime emergency government left Netanyahu even more exposed.

The stability of Netanyahu's government now seems to hang in the balance.

Pressure has increased on the Israeli government to reach an agreement with Hamas for the release of all remaining hostages. But the fate of the Israeli proposal for a truce and exchange of hostages and prisoners, as outlined by President Biden more than a week ago, is still uncertain. The Biden administration and Israeli officials say they are still waiting for a formal response from Hamas to determine whether negotiations can resume.

The Israelis are now debating whether the hostage rescue operation will help or hinder the prospects of such a deal – a deal that, if it goes ahead, could threaten Netanyahu's grip on power, with those on the far right in his coalition of government who promise to resign. and bring down his government.

The rescue of the four hostages will likely strengthen the arguments of those who argue that Israeli military pressure on Hamas and continued ground operations in Gaza are necessary to bring the rest of the hostages home.

But for many Israelis and relatives of the dozens of remaining hostages, the return of just four hostages crystallized the obvious: that such complex military operations can probably save only a few of them and pose great risk to the army.

Israeli media paid little attention to the heavy death toll reported by Gaza officials following the rescue operation. Neither the Israeli military nor Palestinian health officials provided a list of civilians and fighters killed in the raid.

Chief Army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari made clear the limits of what the military could do in a briefing with reporters Saturday, saying of the remaining hostages: “We know that we cannot do operations to save all of them because conditions do not always allow this.” The largest number of hostages released – over a hundred – were freed under a previous agreement for a temporary ceasefire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners in November.

The operation also underlined Israel's difficult situation: without forces on the ground, the army would not be able to conduct any rescue operations or continue to dismantle Hamas capabilities. But Hamas made any progress on the hostage deal conditional on Israel's commitment to a permanent ceasefire and the complete withdrawal of its troops from Gaza.

For Hamas – which lost four of its remaining bargaining cards on Saturday – Israel's deadly operation could strengthen its position. The group hinted that the rescue operation could make things worse for the remaining prisoners.

“The operation will pose a great danger to the enemy's prisoners and will have a negative impact on their conditions and lives,” the spokesman for the group's military wing, Abu Obeida, said in a statement on Saturday.

Experts said some of the remaining hostages may now be moved from civilian apartment blocks, like those that housed the four rescued on Saturday, to harsher conditions in underground tunnels where they will be harder to reach.

“Hamas will try to draw lessons” from the operation and will take greater precautions to keep the hostages inaccessible, said Avi Kalo, an Israeli lieutenant colonel in the reserves and former head of the military intelligence department focused on soldiers missing in action.

“For Hamas this is not a turning point,” he said, adding that the group still holds many hostages. “Four less is not something that radically changes reality,” she added.

Some Israelis were comparing Saturday's high-stakes operation to the legendary Entebbe raid nearly 50 years ago, when Israeli commandos rescued more than a hundred hostages, mostly Israelis, held in Uganda by pro-Palestinian plane hijackers. Mr. Netanyahu's brother, Yonatan, the commander of the raid, was killed during the mission.

Netanyahu himself sought to link the two on Sunday, announcing that just as the Entebbe raid had been retroactively named Operation Yonatan, in memory of his brother, the government had approved the military's proposal to call Saturday's raid “Operation Arnon ”, in honor of Arnon. Zamora, the Israeli police commando killed in a firefight during the mission in Gaza.

Many Israelis had already accused Netanyahu, whose approval ratings plummeted after October 7, of trying to take advantage of the rescue by rushing to greet the freed hostages at the hospital near Tel Aviv where they were recovering and reuniting with their families. their families.

His office then released reams of photographs and video clips from the hospital, where Netanyahu also made a public statement, breaking his usual avoidance of government activity on the Jewish Sabbath.

Relatives of the hostages who did not return said they received no personal attention from the prime minister. Avi Marciano, whose daughter Noa, a soldier, was kidnapped Oct. 7 and killed in Gaza, wrote in a Facebook post Saturday that in the six months since her death was announced: “The prime minister has not come . He didn't even call.”

The departure of Gantz and his party marked the end of the broader emergency government and served as an indictment of Netanyahu's murky wartime policies.

Gantz joined the government soon after October 7 out of what he called a sense of national responsibility and became a key member of Netanyahu's war cabinet. Three weeks ago he issued an ultimatum, saying he would withdraw from the government by June 8 unless Netanyahu mapped out a clear and strategic path forward, including making decisions and plans on how to free the remaining hostages in Gaza and for the post-war government of Gaza. the territory, among other issues.

Mr. Gantz had planned to give a speech to the nation on Saturday evening, but due to the hostage releases he postponed his long-awaited announcement by 24 hours. The departure of his party will not immediately bring down the government; Netanyahu and his remaining partners still hold a majority in Parliament.

But Gantz accused Netanyahu of delaying crucial decisions for petty political reasons, sending a clear signal that even after Saturday's dramatic raid, not much had changed.

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