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Editor’s Note: This page is a summary of news on the Israel-Hamas war for Wednesday, Feb. 8. For the latest news on the conflict in the Middle East, viewour live updates file for Thursday, Feb. 9.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered contrasting reactions Wednesday to Hamas’ counter after the latest proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza, reflecting their divergent approaches.
At a nationally televised news conference after the two met, Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s battleground successes and said, “We are on the way to an absolute victory” over Hamas in a matter of months. “There is no other solution.”
He also said of the militant group’s proposal: “Surrendering to Hamas’ delusional demands that we heard now not only won’t lead to freeing the captives, it will just invite another massacre.”
In a separate news briefing as he concluded his fifth Middle East visit since October, Blinken said a deal could still be worked out. “While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’ response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” he said.
Hamas proposed a 135-day cease-fire plan that would include the release of the remaining hostages and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and an end to a war that has killed tens of thousands and left the enclave in ruins.
The Hamas offer would not require a permanent cease-fire at the outset of the deal but calls for one before the last batch of hostages are released. Female hostages, males under 19, the elderly and sick would be freed during the first 45-day phase, along with Palestinian women and children.
Hamas response to cease-fire plan:Seen as ‘positive’ and ‘over the top’
∎ Hamas wants the deal guaranteed and overseen by Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Russia and the United Nations − but not the U.S. Hamas official Osama Hamdan said a delegation will travel to Cairo for more talks.
∎ Former hostages expressed concern that Netanyahu’s hard-line stance would doom the 100-plus living captives still held in Gaza. “If you continue in this approach of seeking the collapse of Hamas, there won’t be any hostages to free,” said Adina Moshe, who was freed during a November truce.
∎ Israel announced the death of two more of its soldiers in Gaza, raising the total of slain troops in the ground offensive to 227.
US strike kills senior militia commander in Baghdad
The U.S. military killed a senior militia commander it says was responsible for planning and participating in attacks on American service members in the Middle East.
The strike in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, which killed a Kata’ib Hezbollah leader, came after the U.S. struck 85 sites in Iraq and Syria last week in retaliation for an attack that killed three U.S. soldiers on Jan. 28. Iraqi leaders formally protested those strikes and said they resulted in some civilian casualties.
Wednesday’s strike is the latest in what the Pentagon and White House have said will be a continuing effort to deter Iranian-backed militias from attacking U.S. troops in the region, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Associated Press reported the commander, whom it identified as Wissam Muhammad Sabir Al-Saadi − known as Abu Baqir Al-Saadi − may have been one of three people killed in the strike. A statement from U.S. Central Command only mentioned one fatality and said no civilians were harmed.
− Tom Vanden Brook
Blinken met with Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog Wednesday, four months to the day after a Hamas-led assault on Israeli border communities ignited the conflict.
Blinken acknowledged “a lot of work” must be done to close the gap between the demands of each side, including Netanyahu’s insistence that Israeli forces oversee security in Gaza after the war. Israel’s Channel 13 reported there’s a debate within the government over whether to reject the Hamas plan outright or enter into negotiations.
“There are so many innocent men, women and children who are suffering as a result of the attacks perpetrated by Hamas, and now being caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making,” Blinken said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday he is “especially alarmed” by reports the Israeli military is planning a full-scale invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which has seen its population swell as refugees flee the fighting in northern Gaza.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said this week that Rafah, months ago a city of 280,000 that now houses more than 1 million Palestinians, is the last remaining Hamas stronghold. The Israeli military is reportedly considering an evacuation order that would send residents to northern Gaza, which has been devastated by Israeli military actions there, ahead of a major assault on Rafah.
“Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” Guterres said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
President Joe Biden’s campaign events in New York City on Wednesday were expected to draw protests over his handling of the war in Gaza. Although his schedule didn’t provide locations, streets are reportedly expected to close in parts of Manhattan’s Upper East and Upper West sides for his visit. Several organizations opposed to Israel’s months-long war have announced protest plans.
“We know that New Yorkers do NOT want our tax dollars bankrolling Israel’s war crimes,” said a social media post from the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “Let’s make sure he hears it.”
− Eduardo Cuevas
The Hamas plan comes in response to the latest round of talks brokered by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt. The militant group issued a statement thanking Egypt, Qatar and “all countries that seek to stop the brutal aggression” against Palestinians but did not name the U.S., Israel’s strongest ally. The response came after consultation among the Hamas leadership and other “resistance factions” in the region, the statement said.
“The movement dealt with the proposal in a positive spirit to ensure a comprehensive and complete cease-fire, end the aggression against our people, in a manner that guarantees relief, accommodation, reconstruction, lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip and completing an exchange of prisoners,” the statement said.
Avi Melamed, former Israeli intelligence official and author of “Inside The Middle East: Entering A New Era,” said the proposal is “unsignable” for Israel but does indicate Hamas is willing to negotiate. The goal of the offer, he said in an email to USA TODAY, is to “deepen the crisis in Israeli public opinion on hostage negotiations” and to halt the Israeli military’s momentum in Gaza. Melamed said Hamas leaders still plan to regain the level of control they had in Gaza before the war began, despite Netanyahu’s pledge to crush them.
Israel and the U.S. will continue “fighting the war as if there are no negotiations, and negotiating as if there is no war, which has been a hallmark of the Israeli response to Oct. 7,” Melamed wrote.
The first phase of the Hamas plan would require a pause in fighting, with Israel repositioning its military forces away from high-population areas in Gaza. In exchange for the release of some hostages, Israel would free 1,500 Palestinians, including 500 selected by Hamas that may be serving life sentences for terror-related activities.
The flow of humanitarian aid to the enclave would be drastically increased, and reconstruction of hospitals, homes and other crucial buildings would begin. Gazans ordered out of their homes by Israeli forces ahead of military assaults would be allowed to return. Talks aimed at a permanent end to the war also would begin.
Some details of the second phase of the Hamas plan would be negotiated during the first phase. But the second phase would require a completion of talks resulting in an end to the war and the release of the rest of the hostages in exchange for a “certain number” of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. That likely would mean freeing thousands of Palestinians. Israel would remove all its troops from Gaza and reconstruction of the enclave would be stepped up.
In the third stage, the two sides would exchange the bodies of those killed in the war, and the influx of humanitarian aid into Gaza and its reconstruction would continue.
Events marking four months since the war began were held Wednesday in Jerusalem, London, Paris and elsewhere. The conflict started Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants crashed across the border on a killing spree that left 1,200 people dead in Israeli border communities. Hours later the militants fled back to Gaza with more than 240 hostages, over 100 of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s devastating military effort to remove Hamas from power and free the hostages.
While the global focus shifts to cease-fire proposals between Hamas and Israel, Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to disrupt shipping in the Middle East. The Iran-backed militants have been fighting for control of Yemen for more than a thousand years. Now they are taking on the overwhelming military might of the U.S., Britain and their powerful Western allies.
Yemen specialists say the Houthis are a political movement, a military force and a religious group. They have been fighting in a civil war in Yemen since 2014 against a fledgling government that is backed militarily by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and − indirectly, through weapons supplies − the U.S. and Britain.
Gregory Johnsen, a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that beyond their stated reasons of supporting Palestinians getting battered by Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, the Houthis are seeking to exploit their attacks on Red Sea ships for their own political and economic ends. Read more here.
− Kim Hjelmgaard
They support Palestinians in Gaza. But what do Yemen’s Houthi rebels really want?
If you want to have a better understanding of the news and what really drives the unfolding events… Read the latest book of Avi Melamed,
INSIDE THE MIDDLE EAST | ENTERING A NEW ERA, available now >>>
I can always be reached at Av*@Av********.com