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US and Israel discuss when to scale back Gaza combat but agree fight will take months, envoy says

A top U.S. envoy says the United States agrees with Israel that the fight against Hamas will take months, but officials are discussing the timetable for scaling back from high-intensity combat to more precise ways of targeting the militant group’s leaders

Karin Laub,Najib Jobain,Bassem Mroue
Friday 15 December 2023 12:12 GMT

The United States agrees with Israel that the fight against Hamas will take months, but officials are discussing the timetable for scaling back from high-intensity combat to more precise ways of targeting the militant group's leaders, a top U.S. envoy said Friday amid growing American unease about the mounting death toll in Gaza.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan planned to talk to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day about the besieged enclave's postwar future, which, according to a senior U.S. official, could include bringing back Palestinian security forces driven from their jobs in Gaza by Hamas in its 2007 takeover.

American and Israeli officials have been vague in public about how Gaza will be run if Israel achieves its goal of ending Hamas control — and the idea, floated as one of several, appeared to be the first time Washington offered some detail on its vision for security arrangements in the enclave.

Any role for Palestinian security forces in Gaza is bound to elicit strong opposition from Israel, which seeks to maintain an open-ended security presence there and says it won't allow a postwar foothold for the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank but is deeply unpopular with Palestinians.

In meetings with Israeli leaders on Thursday and Friday, Sullivan discussed a timetable for winding down the intense combat phase of the war.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Sullivan that it would take months to destroy Hamas, but did not say whether his estimate referred to the current phase of heavy airstrikes and ground battles.

Sullivan said Friday that “there is no contradiction between saying the fight is going to take months and also saying that different phases will take place at different times over those months, including the transition from the high-intensity operations to more targeted operations.”

He said he discussed a timeline with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s War Cabinet, and that such conversations would continue during an upcoming visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The offensive, triggered by the unprecedented Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, 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.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed 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.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives,” Biden said Thursday when asked if he wants Israel to scale down its operations by the end of the month. “Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful.”

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.

Israel’s air and ground assault over the past 10 weeks has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. Thousands more are missing and feared dead beneath the rubble.

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.

On Friday morning, communications services, which telecommunications provider Paltel said Thursday were cut due to ongoing fighting, still appeared to be down across Gaza.

Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling continued overnight and into Friday, including in the southern city of Rafah, part of the shrinking areas of tiny, densely populated Gaza to which Palestinian civilians had been told by Israel to evacuate. At least one person was killed, according to an Associated Press journalist who saw the body arriving at a local hospital.

Israelis 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.

The Israeli military on Friday confirmed the recovery of the bodies of three hostages. Two were soldiers, both aged 19, and the third was a 28-year-old dual French-Israeli national kidnapped from a music festival.

More than 100 hostages have been freed, most during a cease-fire last month in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Sullivan was scheduled to meet Friday with Abbas, who lost control of Gaza when Hamas drove out his security forces in 2007. The takeover came a year after Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah party in parliament elections and the rivals failed to form a unity government.

A senior U.S. official said that Sullivan and others have discussed the prospect of having those associated with the Palestinian Authority security forces before the Hamas takeover serve as the “nucleus” of postwar peacekeeping in Gaza.

It was one idea of many being considered for establishing security in Gaza, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with White House ground rules. He said such talks were taking place with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and regional partners.

The U.S. has said it eventually wants to see the West Bank and Gaza under a unified Palestinian government, as a precursor to Palestinian statehood — an idea soundly rejected by Netanyahu, who leads a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinian prime minister told The Associated Press 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,” Mohammed Shtayyeh said Thursday. “If the United States cannot deliver Israel, who can?”

As part of postwar scenarios, Washington has also called for revitalizing the Palestinian Authority, without letting on whether such reforms would require personnel changes or general elections, which last took place 17 years ago.

The 88-year-old Abbas is deeply unpopular, with a poll published Wednesday indicating close to 90% of Palestinians want him to resign. Meanwhile, Palestinian support for Hamas has tripled in the West Bank, with a small uptick in Gaza, according to the poll. Still, a majority of Palestinians do not back Hamas, according to the survey.

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Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press journalists Aamer Madhani in Washington, Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

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Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

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