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‘Running Out Of Credit’ As Civilian Deaths Mount In Gaza

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6 December 2023, The Australian, by Cameron Stewart

Israel confronts its most difficult challenge yet as it begins its ground offensive in southern Gaza, a region teeming with displaced people and the surviving core of Hamas.

In its new southern campaign, Israel is battling not only against Hamas, but also the ebbing tolerance of the international community including its biggest ally, the US, in the face of the heavy and growing civilian death toll in the two-month-old conflict.

Yet the ground offensive in southern Gaza, which is essential if Israel is to wipe out Hamas, is certain to add substantially to the already high civilian death toll even if Israel takes a more cautious approach to airstrikes as the US has requested.

It is simply impossible for Israel to avoid heavy civilian casualties in southern Gaza as it pursues Hamas because that is where 1.8 million people have gathered, many after fleeing to supposedly safe ground from the heavy battleground of northern Gaza.

They cannot go back to the north and there are fast-diminishing areas in the south where they can move to safely.

Israel is trying to give warnings to people in the southern city of Khan Younis, a metropolis swollen by displaced people from the north, to flee south and west, but the warnings given by leaflets and online are vague at best.

The US has been pressuring Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties in the south, having seen how the heavy civilian death toll in the north has greatly eroded international support for Israel to destroy Hamas at any price.

So far, Israel and the US have failed to deliver a convincing plan to move large numbers of people to a safe-haven in the south. But a better plan needs to be put in place quickly to avoid many thousands more civilians dying. This is imperative because there is no way that Israeli forces can destroy Hamas and avoid mass civilian casualties if this new war zone is effectively a giant camp for displaced people.

Israel finds itself in no-man’s land here. Public support inside Israel is powerfully behind the mission to destroy Hamas after its murderous rampage of October 7 that left 1200 Israelis dead.

But the West, and now the US, is increasingly walking a tightrope on Israel, supporting its aim of destroying Hamas, while criticising openly the number of civilian deaths.

Israel argues that it cannot and should not have to fight Hamas with one hand tied behind its back. The US is, in effect, saying that this is what Israel must do because it is immoral and counterproductive for Israel’s military campaign to kill so many civilians, as many as 15,000 according to the Hamas-run Gazan health authority.

Israel says it needs another two months of fighting at this intensity to defeat Hamas, but US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reported to have replied “I don’t think you have the credit for that”.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has argued that unless Israel does more to prevent civilian deaths it could produce more insurgents in the future and replace “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”. These are serious warnings from Washington.

Israel cannot afford to alienate the US and it must be cognisant of changing public opinion in the US against Israel’s offensive in Gaza. It must do more to reduce civilian casualties in this second phase of the war, not just on humanitarian grounds but for its own longer-term interests.

This probably means fewer non-surgical airstrikes, which kill many more civilians than Hamas militants, and instead a greater focus on targeted ground operations.

But this is a fiendishly difficult operation for Israel to carry out in the crowded south. It must somehow continue to defeat Hamas while not alienating its allies. This is the most difficult challenge Israel has yet faced in this conflict.

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Article source: The Australian | Cameron Stewart | 6.12.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000