• Associated Press

Israeli Defense Minister Says War on Hamas will Last Months as US Envoy Discusses Timetable

AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman
Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip is carried into Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s defense minister said Thursday it will take months to destroy Hamas, predicting a drawn-out war even as his country and its top ally, the United States, face increasing international isolation and alarm over the devastation from the campaign in Gaza.

Yoav Gallant’s comments came as U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Israeli leaders to discuss a timetable for winding down major combat in Gaza. Israeli leaders repeated their determination to pursue the military assault until they crush the militant group for its Oct. 7 attack.

The exchange seemed to continue a dynamic the two allies have been locked in for weeks. The Biden administration has shown unease over Israel’s failure to reduce civilian casualties and its plans for the future of Gaza, but the White House continues to offer wholehearted support for Israel with weapons shipments and diplomatic backing.

Meanwhile, aside from small adjustments, Israel has changed little in what has been one of the 21st century’s most devastating military campaigns, with a mounting death toll.

The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said it’s time for the United States to deal more firmly with Israel, particularly on Washington’s calls for postwar negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Now that the United States has talked the talk, we want Washington to walk the walk,” Shtayyeh said in an interview with The Associated Press a day before he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are to meet with Sullivan.

Sullivan was to visit Ramallah for the meeting, where the men will discuss ongoing efforts to promote stability in the West Bank, according to a Biden administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the visit, which has not been formally announced.

A deadly Hamas ambush on Israeli troops in Gaza City this week showed the group’s resilience and called into question whether Israel can defeat it without wiping out the entire territory. The campaign has flattened much of northern Gaza and driven 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes. Displaced people have squeezed into shelters mainly in the south in a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

Gallant said Hamas has been building military infrastructure in Gaza for more than a decade, “and it is not easy to destroy them. It will require a period of time.”

“It will last more than several months, but we will win, and we will destroy them,” he said.

After talks with Sullivan in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told Israel’s “American friends” that the country was “more determined than ever to continue fighting until Hamas is eliminated — until complete victory.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sullivan talked with Netanyahu about moving to “lower intensity operations” sometime “in the near future.”

“But I don’t want to put a time stamp on it,” he said.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden said Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing.” U.S. officials have been telling Israel for several weeks that the country’s window is closing for concluding major combat operations in Gaza without losing even more support internationally.

ARRESTS IN THE NORTH

The Palestinian telecommunications provider Paltel said Thursday that all communication services across Gaza were cut off due to ongoing fighting, severing the besieged territory from the outside world.

Heavy fighting has raged for days in areas around eastern Gaza City that were encircled earlier in the war. Tens of thousands of people remain in the north despite repeated evacuation orders, saying they don’t feel safe anywhere in Gaza or fear they may never be allowed to return to their homes if they leave.

The military released footage Thursday showing Israeli troops leading a line of dozens of men with their hands above their heads out of a damaged building it said was the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the north Gaza town of Beit Lahia. Men brought out four assault rifles and set them on the street along with several ammunition magazines.

In the video, a commander said militants had fired on troops from the hospital and that troops were evacuating those inside while detaining suspected militants. Earlier in the week, a Gaza Health Ministry official said weapons inside belong to the hospital’s guards. Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.

Israeli troops have held the hospital since Tuesday, according to the Health Ministry and U.N. During that time, 70 medical workers and patients were detained, including the hospital director, they said.

Several thousand displaced people sheltering there were evacuated after the raid, and the remaining patients — including 12 children in intensive care — will be taken to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the Health Ministry said.

Israel says it is rounding up men in northern Gaza as it searches for Hamas fighters, and recent videos have shown dozens of detained men stripped to their underwear, bound and blindfolded in the streets. Some released detainees have said they were beaten and denied food and water.

A HEAVY CIVILIAN TOLL

Israel’s air and ground assault, launched in response to Hamas’ unprecedented attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths. Its latest count did not specify how many were women and minors, but they have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead in previous tallies. Thousands more are missing and feared dead beneath the rubble.

Multiple strikes hit Thursday in the southern cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, residents reported. After an early morning strike in Rafah, an Associated Press reporter saw 27 bodies brought into a local hospital Thursday.

One woman burst into tears after recognizing the body of her child.

“They were young people, children, displaced, all sitting at home,” Mervat Ashour said. “There were no resistance fighters, rockets or anything.”

New evacuation orders issued as troops pushed into Khan Younis earlier this month have pushed U.N.-run shelters to the breaking point and forced people to set up tent camps in even less hospitable areas. Heavy rain and cold in recent days have compounded their misery, swamping tents and forcing families to crowd around fires to keep warm.

Israel has sealed Gaza off to all but a trickle of humanitarian aid, and U.N. agencies have struggled to distribute it since the offensive expanded to the south because of fighting and road closures.

AP Photo/Fatima Shbair
Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at the hospital Rafah, southern Gaza, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

RISING SUPPORT FOR HAMAS

Israel might have hoped that the war and its hardships would turn Palestinians against Hamas, hastening its demise. But a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found 44% of respondents in the occupied West Bank said they supported Hamas, up from 12% in September. In Gaza, the militants enjoyed 42% support, up from 38% three months ago.

That’s still a minority in both territories. But even many Palestinians who do not share Hamas’ commitment to destroying Israel and oppose its attacks on civilians see it as resisting Israel’s decades-old occupation of lands they want for a future state.

Israelis, meanwhile, remain strongly supportive of the war and see it as necessary to prevent a repeat of Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants attacked communities across southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking some 240 hostage. A total of 116 soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive, which began Oct. 27.

Around half the hostages, mostly women and children, were released last month during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

AP Photo/Leo Correa
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.