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Israel abandoning captives to hunt Hamas leaders, say military officers

Officers tell MEE the war has become personal for Netanyahu, who is planning a long-term presence in Gaza 'partially approved' by the US
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on 7 May 2024 reportedly shows Israeli soldiers in the area of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip (AFP/Israeli army)
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on 7 May 2024 reportedly shows Israeli soldiers in the area of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip (AFP/Israeli army)

Israel has abandoned its goals of freeing the captives in Gaza, instead seeking to establish a long-term presence with its Rafah ground offensive and pursue top Palestinian leaders, Israeli military officers have told Middle East Eye.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, three officers, one of whom is serving in Gaza, questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy in the ongoing war on Gaza, which has killed at least 34,800 Palestinians and failed to return captives taken by Hamas on 7 October.  

One officer told MEE the government’s aims were unclear and the objective of rescuing captives and destroying Hamas had “collapsed”.

“Netanyahu's operations in Gaza are fundamentally aimed at ... hunting down Yahya Sinwar,” said the officer in Gaza, adding that the war had become “personal” for the Israeli premier. 

Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in the enclave, is Israel’s number one target and has not been seen in public since the war began. 

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The officer told MEE that Israel’s military had become “obsessed” with Sinwar and the upper echelons of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. 

Last month, a Hamas official said Sinwar had visited combat zones above the ground and held deliberations with the group's leadership abroad. 

Speaking to the pan-Arab news outlet Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed (or The New Arab), the Hamas official said Sinwar was not always staying in tunnels, as claimed by Israel, but also performing his duties in the field. MEE could not independently verify the reports on his whereabouts. 

'The army and intelligence are unable to make the right decisions'

- Israeli military officer 

The military officer in Gaza said that conducting special operations targeting high-ranking individuals in a densely populated area risked making the conflict “perpetual”, and would be impossible without Israeli casualties and subsequent "retaliations" by the army. 

“The army and intelligence are unable to make the right decisions in this respect,” one source said. 

An officer not currently serving in Gaza said a “new phase” of the war was being planned involving a long-term military presence through special operations.

“This plan has been partially approved by the US,” the officer told MEE. “It's all part of a plan agreed upon by the two countries for a Hamas-free Gaza.”

MEE contacted the US State Department and the Israeli military for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

The US has previously said it opposes the re-occupation of Gaza or re-establishing a permanent Israeli presence there.

Israel has repeatedly said its main war objectives remain "returning our hostages and eliminating Hamas".  

Captives 'no longer of concern'

According to the source, the planned long-term presence includes a ground invasion of Rafah, which Israel launched earlier this week. 

Israeli forces captured the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Tuesday, hours after its troops had disconnected a major road in eastern Rafah from the crossing. 

The capture came after several days of deadly heavy air raids and shelling of Rafah, where around 1.5 million displaced Palestinians have been sheltering for months. 

It also followed an announcement by Hamas that it accepts a US-mediated ceasefire proposal that leads to the release of all captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, the end of the war and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops. 

Everything that Israeli leaders had “discussed for a while” was currently taking place, according to one of the military sources, who added that a temporary truce was likely to follow in order to quell anti-government protests in Israel.

'Hostages are no longer of concern to anyone'

- Israeli military officer

Hamas has repeatedly said it will not agree to a temporary truce. 

“A few hostages might be exchanged. However, hostages are no longer of concern to anyone,” the source said.

Israel estimates that 128 of around 250 captives taken to Gaza during Hamas's surprise attack on Israel in October remain there, including 35 who the military says are dead. Hamas says at least 70 captives have been killed in Israeli air strikes.

Protests in Israel led by the families of captives have called on the government to end the war on Gaza and bring their loved ones home.

Responding to Hamas's agreement to the US-mediated ceasefire proposal on Monday, Netanyahu's office said the Palestinian group's stance was “far from meeting Israel’s core demands".

However, he said that Israel "will dispatch a ranking delegation to Egypt in an effort to maximise the possibility of reaching an agreement on terms acceptable to Israel".

Another round of indirect talks reportedly began on Tuesday in Cairo, with the presence of delegations from Hamas, Israel, the US, Qatar and Egypt. 

CIA director William Burns, who is leading the talks, is set to arrive in Israel and meet with Netanyahu.

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