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Netanyahu Under Pressure Over Israel Troop Losses, Hostages

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JERUSALEMf — 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a mounting crisis after Israel’s worst day of troop losses in the Gaza war, as well as growing protests over his failure to bring hostages back.

The military’s strategy in the Palestinian territory is under intense scrutiny following the death of 24 troops on Monday, Israel’s biggest one-day loss since its ground offensive in Gaza started in late October.

Among those killed were 21 reservists, who died in a single incident.

The incident, which saw rocket-propelled grenade fire hit a tank and two buildings the soldiers were trying to blow up, was deemed a “disaster” by Netanyahu.

Emmanuel Navon, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, told AFP the troop losses “affect everybody, because almost everybody in the country has a son or brother or a relative [fighting in Gaza].”

Israelis would now be increasingly asking “what is the strategy… Do we really keep going until we finish Hamas?” he asked.

At the same time, splits have emerged in Netanyahu’s war Cabinet following protests in Tel Aviv and outside his Jerusalem home, where relatives of hostages staged a rally Monday chanting “everybody and now” to urge the return of captives.

“The current mood in the war cabinet is very bad,” said Julia Elad-Strenger, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu’s steadfast vow to eliminate the Palestinian militant group Hamas in response to the October 7 terror attack is increasingly seen within the Cabinet as incompatible with returning hostages held in Gaza, experts told AFP.

War Cabinet divided

Two members of the five-person war Cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, have rejected Netanyahu’s stance that only military pressure on Hamas will allow the return of hostages, the experts said.

“According to Netanyahu there can be no victory with Hamas left standing, according to Gantz and Eisenkot there can be no victory with hostages lost,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Eisenkot, whose son died fighting in Gaza, gave an interview last week in which he split from Netanyahu’s long-held position.

“It is impossible to return the hostages alive in the near future without an agreement [with Hamas],” he told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12.

Netanyahu has vowed “total victory” over Hamas in response to the unprecedented attack by its fighters on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The militants seized about 250 hostages and Israel says around 132 remain in besieged Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 dead hostages, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli data.

In response to the attack, Israel has launched a relentless offensive in Gaza that has killed at least 25,490 people, around 70 percent of them women, young children and adolescents, according to the latest toll issued Tuesday by Gaza’s health ministry.

‘Worst point’

Netanyahu has rejected suggestions that his government should hold another round of talks with Hamas to reach a similar deal to one struck in November that led to the release of 80 Israeli hostages.

Under that deal, brokered by Qatar, the United States and Egypt, a seven-day humanitarian pause was agreed that allowed aid deliveries into Gaza, while hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for hostages.

The Israeli premier doubled down on his refusal to enter talks with Hamas on Sunday, saying: “The conditions demanded by Hamas demonstrate a simple truth: there is no substitute for victory.”

Netanyahu said Hamas had set conditions for the release of more hostages that included an end to the war, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and guarantees that the group will stay in power.

Experts said they expected the Israeli premier to continue the war as a tactic to remain in power, even as pressure to change course mounts.

“I think he has made a decision to keep this war going and not just for his political interests, but endless war is his strategy in general,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“As far as Netanyahu is concerned, if the war lasts beyond 2024 that’s better for him politically because it gets October 7 further away from us and it gives him a chance to rebuild,” said Hazan of Hebrew University.

“Right now, he is at the worst point in his entire career,” said Hazan.

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