IDF troops inside the Gaza Strip > IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the ground

  • Israeli military operations are ongoing in Khan Younis to dismantle Hamas brigades and locate tunnels and weapons, as well as in parts of Gaza City to prevent Hamas returning to areas taken over by the IDF in December.
  • Defence Minister Yoav Gallant declared on Sunday that Hamas’s Khan Younis brigade was no longer functioning, though fighting continues in the west of the city. Earlier in the week the IDF entered Khan Younis’s Nasser and Al Amal hospitals, capturing more than 200 Hamas operatives, some dressed as hospital staff, and discovering weapons and medications intended for hostages that had not been opened.
  • The IDF insisted it acted without harming patients and medical staff, and late last week delivered fuel, food and a replacement generator. Medical workers told international media of desperate conditions as they evacuated patients in coordination with the IDF.

Eyes on Rafah

  • War cabinet member Benny Gantz indicated that an offensive into Rafah is not immediately imminent by warning on Sunday that Israel will push into Rafah if Hamas does not free the remaining hostages held in Gaza before the start of Ramadan on 10 March.
  • He insisted that an offensive in Rafah would take place “in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimise civilian casualties”, a position also articulated by Netanyahu.
  • The Biden administration has insisted that a “credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support” for civilians in Rafah is a prerequisite for any operation to proceed, in a move that has been echoed by other countries including the UK, as well as LFI. The IDF now has far fewer troops in the Gaza Strip than previously, with many reservists demobilised.

Humanitarian situation

  • Some 199 trucks of aid entered the Gaza Strip on 16 February and a further 123 on 18 February. However, concerns regarding the humanitarian situation across the Gaza Strip are intensifying, with lack of access to aid causing malnutrition in the northern Gaza Strip, and huge overcrowding in the south around Rafah. The World Food Programme said it was pausing deliveries to northern Gaza after the looting of trucks amid a complete breakdown of order. There is also an acute shortage of clean water.
  • In a press conference on Wednesday, Benny Gantz referred to the challenge of getting aid into Gaza whilst circumventing Hamas, saying: “We are examining a number of options so that aid to Gaza will be delivered through an international administration of moderate Arab countries with the support of the US. We are currently promoting pilot programs of the transfer.” Additional reports indicate the IDF is trying to establish arrangements with local community leaders inside the Gaza Strip.
  • From 7 October to 21 February some 29,313 Palestinians have reportedly been killed according to figures provided by Gaza’s health ministry, which is run by Hamas. These figures have not been independently verified and make no distinction between civilians and Hamas fighters. The IDF claims it has killed 10,000 fighters in the Gaza Strip, in addition to around 1000 killed in Israel on or after October 7. Israel has lost 235 soldiers in the ground operation, and some 1200 Israelis and others killed in Israel on October 7.

Broader picture

  • A letter apparently sent by war cabinet member Gadi Eisenkot, a member of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, to other war cabinet members calling for changes in the handling of the war, was leaked to the press on Monday. It called among other things for a hostage deal before the onset of Ramadan; steps to prevent an escalation in the West Bank; the return of citizens evacuated from communities on the Gaza and Lebanon borders; and advancing a civilian alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
  • Exchanges of fire continue across the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah and other armed groups in Southern Lebanon firing daily into Israel. The IDF targeted a Hezbollah weapons depot in the area of Sidon on Monday, indicating its readiness to operate deep into Lebanon. There are also reports of an IDF airstrike targeting a Hezbollah commander in Damascus.
  • With ongoing attacks by Iranian backed Houthis on international shipping in the Red Sea, the EU announced on Monday it was launching a maritime mission to contribute to the protection of shipping, with at least four ships involved.

Hostage deal talks and Biden peace diplomacy

  • Speaking on 21 February, Benny Gantz suggested some signs of optimism following talks in Cairo to advance a hostage deal that would bring an extended pause in the fighting. There are reports of a possible high-level summit in Paris on Friday which would be attended by Mossad chief David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and CIA chief Bill Burns. Israel has been waiting for Hamas to moderate its demands from a proposal it tabled via Qatari mediators on 6 February.
  • The US vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council on Tuesday which called for an immediate ceasefire, with the UK abstaining. The US has proposed its own draft calling for a temporary ceasefire and including a condemnation of Hamas.
  • Without reneging on the commitment to seeing Hamas defeated, the Biden administration has made clear its goal to secure an extended pause in fighting as soon as possible as part of a hostage release deal. A report in the Washington Post on 14 February suggested that they would like, under pressure from Arab allies, to secure a deal before the beginning of Ramadan on 10 March, and avoid a major IDF offensive into the southern Gazan city of Rafah that would spill into the Muslim holy month.
  • The same Washington Post report claimed the US would like to use this window to advance a wider set of regional agreements to advance proposal for Saudi normalization with Israel, tied to advancing Palestinian statehood.
  • The goal as stated by Secretary Blinken is: “An Israel that’s fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries, including Saudi Arabia, with firm guarantees for its security, alongside a concrete, time-bound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel, with the necessary security assurances.”
  • As part of this process, the Biden administration is pushing for reform of the Palestinian Authority, including improved governance and increased accountability. The PA has announced a package of reforms, criticised by many as cosmetic so long as 88-year-old PA President Mahmoud Abbas remains in power.
  • Proposals have been considered by the State Department in coordination with partners to advance recognition of Palestinian statehood, ahead of agreement with Israel about Palestine’s borders. However, US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew sought to dispel Israeli concerns about a unilateral recognition, saying on Sunday, “We have never said there should be a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state,” but rather an “over-the-horizon process that includes a vision for a demilitarized Palestinian state.”
  • Netanyahu has used the prospect of unilateral recognition to mobilise the cabinet and Knesset behind him. A large Knesset majority backed a resolution on Wednesday opposing attempts to “impose” a Palestinian state, following a similar move in the Israeli cabinet on 18 February. The Cabinet resolution rejected unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, but added that, “A settlement, if it is to be reached, will come about solely through direct negotiations between the parties.” Whilst opposition leader Yair Lapid voted for the Knesset resolution he criticised it as political stunt, telling Netanyahu: “You invented a threat that doesn’t exist.”
  • Netanyahu, under constraint from far-right coalition partners on whom he is politically dependent, has positioned himself in opposition to Palestinian statehood. Benny Gantz – currently flying high in the polls – has said the hostages should be the top priority, and separately that Israel should prioritise regional arrangements that will strengthen its position against Iran.

ICJ hearing on legality of Israeli occupation

  • The International Court of Justice began on 19th February a week of hearings into the legality of Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. The hearing results from a 2022 United Nations General Assembly resolution promoted by the Palestinians requesting the ICJ issue an advisory opinion on “Legal Consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.
  • Some 52 states and three international organisations will present evidence which is expected to overwhelmingly be against Israel. In contrast to the recent interim hearing relating to the charge of genocide brought by South Africa, Israel has disputed the jurisdiction of the ICJ to hear what it argues is a political and not a legal matter. Israel has declined to participate in the hearings, and said in a written submission that the case was an attempt to: “turn a conflict that should be resolved through direct negotiations and without external impositions into a one-sided and improper legal process designed to adopt an extremist and distorted narrative according to which the Palestinians have no responsibilities and Israel has no rights.” It was reported in August 2023 that the UK government had submitted an opinion to the court opposing the hearing of the case in the ICJ.

What happens next

Gantz’s Ramadan ultimatum to Hamas provides a window of opportunity for the hostages to finally be freed, and for the international community to intensify efforts to bring an end to the conflict, particularly avoiding an Israeli operation in Rafah.