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Israel will continue until ‘total victory’ over Hamas, vows defiant Netanyahu

Israel continues to pummel the Gaza Strip (Ariel Schalit/AP)
Israel continues to pummel the Gaza Strip (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Benjamin Netanyahu has railed against growing criticism from the United States against his leadership amid the devastating war with Hamas, saying the pressure will not stop Israel from achieving “total victory”.

In recent days, top officials in Washington – Israel’s staunchest ally which has provided key military and diplomatic support during the war – have publicly voiced their frustration with the Israeli Prime Minister and his government. US President Joe Biden has accused Mr Netanyahu of hurting Israel because of the huge civilian death toll in Gaza.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in America and a strong Israel supporter, then called on Israel to call an election, saying Mr Netanyahu has “lost his way”. Mr Biden expressed support for what he called a “good speech”.

Mr Netanyahu denounced Mr Schumer’s comments as “wholly inappropriate”, telling Fox News that Israel never would have called for a new US election after the September 11 attacks.

“We’re not a banana republic,” he said. “The people of Israel will choose when they will have elections, and who they’ll elect, and it’s not something that will be foisted on us.”

When asked by CNN whether he would commit to a new election after the war ends, Mr Netanyahu said: “I think that’s something for the Israeli public to decide.”

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu was defiant in the face of criticism from the US (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

The US has also expressed concern about a planned Israeli assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, and support for a new round of talks aimed at securing a ceasefire in exchange for the return of Israeli hostages.

The Israeli delegation to those talks is not expected to leave for Qatar until after Sunday evening meetings of the security cabinet and war cabinet, which will give them directions for the negotiations.

Despite the talks, Mr Netanyahu made it clear on Sunday he has no plans to back down from the fighting that has already killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, in the more than five months since Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel. Hamas killed 1,200 people in that raid and took another 250 hostage in Gaza, Israeli authorities say.

Mr Netanyahu said calls for an election now – which polls show he would lose – would force Israel to stop fighting and would paralyse the country for six months.

“If we stop the war now, before all of its goals are achieved, this means that Israel will have lost the war, and this we will not allow,” he said.

Aid drop
Humanitarian aid is air-dropped to Palestinians in Gaza City (Mohammed Hajjar/AP)

“Therefore, we cannot, and will not, succumb to this pressure.”

While the international criticism was mainly directed at Mr Netanyahu and his leadership specifically, his statement on Sunday painted it as a broader attack on Israel.

“No international pressure will stop us from realising all of the goals of the war: Eliminating Hamas, freeing all of our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza never again constitutes a threat to Israel,” he said.

He reiterated his determination to attack Hamas in Rafah and said his government has approved military plans for such an operation.

“We will operate in Rafah,” he said. “This will take several weeks, and it will happen.”

Palestinians rush to collect humanitarian aid air-dropped into Gaza City on Sunday (Mohammed Hajjar/AP)

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York and an outspoken critic of Mr Netanyahu, said the Israeli leader’s comments fit in with his efforts to find someone else to blame should Israel not achieve its wartime goal of destroying Hamas.

“He’s looking on purpose for a conflict with the US so that he can blame Biden,” Mr Pinkas said.

Both sides have something to gain politically from the public spat. The Biden administration has come under increasing pressure from progressive Democrats and some Arab-American supporters to restrain Israel’s war against Hamas. Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, has used the recurrent arguments to show his base that he can withstand global pressure, even from Israel’s closest ally.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi reiterated his warning that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would have “grave repercussions on the whole region”.

Egypt also says pushing Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula would jeopardise its peace treaty with Israel, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly half a century.

And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, after meeting Mr Netanyahu on Sunday, warned that “the more desperate the situation of people in Gaza becomes, the more this begs the question: No matter how important the goal, can it justify such terribly high costs, or are there other ways to achieve your goal?”.

Israel Palestinians
Palestinians collect humanitarian aid airdropped into Gaza City on Sunday (Mohammed Hajjar/AP)

Israel’s offensive has driven most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes. A quarter of the population is starving, according to the UN.

Airdrops by the US and other nations continue, while deliveries on a new sea route have begun, but aid groups say more ground routes and fewer Israeli restrictions on them are needed to meet humanitarian needs in any significant way.

“Of course we should be bringing humanitarian aid by road. Of course by now we should be having at least two, three other entry points into Gaza,” chef Jose Andres with World Central Kitchen, which organized the tons of food delivered by sea, told NBC.

The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 31,645 Palestinians have been killed in the war. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

At least 11 people from one family, including five children and one woman, were killed in an airstrike in Deir al-Balah city in central Gaza, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and an Associated Press journalist. The body of an infant lay among the dead.