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Netanyahu scrambles to quell revolt by far right over Gaza fuel - Scrapoid


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TEL AVIV, Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu scrambled to quell a revolt by religious nationalists and settler leaders within his increasingly unruly governing coalition demanding he reverse a decision to let two fuel trucks per day enter Gaza — a concession the Israeli prime minister made amid growing U.S. and international pressure. 

Rebellious coalition partners demanded to have more say over the conduct of the war after Netanyahu’s decision was announced Friday. They argued there should be no delivery of fuel, however limited, to the Palestinian coastal enclave — or any other humanitarian concessions — until Hamas frees the 240 Israeli hostages the group seized on October 7, when gunmen launched an attack on southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, Israeli officials say.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right settler leader, insisted the war cabinet be expanded from three people, including Netanyahu, so that all seven parties in the coalition government have a seat. Smotrich said allowing fuel in “is a grave mistake.”

In recent weeks, as Western allies attempt to persuade Netanyahu to restrain Israeli military action which has killed nearly 11,500 Palestinians in 42 days, according to separate counts by both the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas-run government in Gaza, a number which some Israeli officials dispute he has to contend with coalition partners who are set against conceding. 

The religious nationalists and settler leaders also were critical of his decision last week, made again after arm-twisting by the Biden administration, to pause for a few hours daily its aerial bombardment and ground operations to allow Palestinians to flee south from the most intense fighting in northern Gaza.

The eruption within the coalition government over the fuel concession illustrates the dilemma Netanyahu faces in trying to balance far-right religious nationalists in his government and Israel’s Western allies, who are increasingly pressing him to ease the plight of Gaza civilians. The majority of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under air, land and sea blockade by Israel since 2007 — when Hamas wrested power over the Strip from Fatah — relied heavily on humanitarian aid before the war, including fuel to clean water, operate sewage systems and power now-shut-off telecommunications. Egypt has upheld a blockade on its border crossing at Rafah with Gaza since 2007.

Israeli officials say the decision to let in small amounts of fuel daily, a fraction of the fuel allowed before the war, was allowed as a gesture to Western allies and to avoid a breakdown of Gaza’s sewage and water systems, which would risk spreading disease, impacting civilians and Israeli troops. 

“If plague were to break out, we’d have to stop the war,” National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi told reporters Friday.

But Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister overseeing Israel’s police, dismissed that argument, saying “so long as our hostages don’t even get a visit from the Red Cross, there’s no sense in giving the enemy humanitarian gifts.” Permitting fuel, he said, “broadcasts weakness, gives oxygen to the enemy and allows [Hamas Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar to sit comfortably in his air-conditioned bunker, watch the news and continue to manipulate Israeli society and the families of the abductees.”

Scrounging for fuel

Israel cut off all fuel deliveries to Gaza at the start of the war, forcing the enclave’s only power plant to shut down, and it has been highly reluctant to allow fuel into Gaza, claiming it could be used to keep generators working to pump oxygen into Hamas’ huge network of tunnels. “For air, they need oil. For oil, they need us,” Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, said as the war commenced. 

But civilians need fuel as well. Gaza hospitals have been scrounging to find fuel to run their generators to power incubators and other life-saving equipment. And the U.N. has been urging fuel deliveries. Midweek, Israel allowed in a small amount to keep United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) aid delivery trucks operating. 

Netanyahu has agreed to no more than 140,000 liters being transported every two days into Gaza.

An official in the prime minister’s office told POLITICO: “60,000 liters of fuel (about two trucks) were approved, which is about 3.5 percent of the amount that came in before the war, in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis and enable the continued destruction of Hamas-ISIS. It will prevent the sewage system from collapsing. The long-term policy will be discussed tonight in the cabinet.”

President Biden asked Netanyahu for a “pause longer than three days” to allow for negotiations over the release of some hostages held by Hamas | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden expressed frustration last week about how long it took to get Israel to agree on brief humanitarian pauses. He had asked the Israeli leader not only for daily pauses but also for a “pause longer than three days” to allow for negotiations over the release of some hostages held by Hamas. On the latter he has so far been rebuffed but on the former, he said it had “taken a little longer than I hoped.”

Netanyahu has struggled to keep his rambunctious far-right coalition partners in line. Last week he urged ministers to pipe down and “be careful with their words” when they talk about the war on Hamas. “Every word has meaning when it comes to diplomacy,” the prime minister said at a full cabinet meeting. “We must be sensitive,” he added, saying speaking out of turn harms Israel’s international legitimacy. 

His warning came after his agriculture minister, Avi Dichter, envisaged the displacement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip becoming a permanent uprooting. He dubbed it the “Gaza Nakba of 2023,” a reference to the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, known as the nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic). “That’s how it’ll end,” Dichter said during a television interview. 

Just days earlier, Amihai Eliyahu, the heritage minister, prompted an outcry in Israel and abroad when he suggested one option in the war could be to drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza. Netanyahu quickly disavowed the comment, and then suspended Eliyahu from cabinet meetings.

And on Thursday, before the coalition eruption over Netanyahu’s backtracking on previous pledges not to allow a drop of fuel to enter Gaza, Ben Gvir said the West Bank should be flattened like Gaza following an attack by Hamas gunmen on a checkpoint south of Jerusalem. 

“We need to deal with Hamas in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority which has similar views to Hamas and its heads identified with Hamas’ massacre, exactly like we are dealing with Gaza,” Ben Gvir said. 

Netanyahu’s coalition partners are unlikely though to walk out of the government. None of the seven parties will want to set in motion the circumstances for a snap election. A poll Friday found that the Netanyahu-led coalition would be roundly beaten if elections for the Knesset were held today. 

The Israeli prime minister isn’t getting any boost from the war, unlike Benny Gantz, a retired general and one of the leaders of the center-right National Unity party. He agreed to serve in the war cabinet for the duration of the fight, despite personal and political differences with Netanyahu. When asked who they would prefer as prime minister, 41 percent of respondents said Gantz; only 25 percent said Netanyahu. 

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