Israeli defence chief challenges Netanyahu over post-war Gaza plans

Israeli defence chief challenges Netanyahu over post-war Gaza plans


Israeli defence chief challenges Netanyahu over post-war Gaza plans

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was publicly challenged about post-war plans for the Gaza Strip on Wednesday by his own defence chief, who vowed to oppose any long-term military rule by Israel over the ravaged Palestinian enclave.

The televised statement by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant marked the most vocal dissent from within Israel's top echelon against Netanyahu during a seven-month-old and multi-front conflict that has set off political fissures at home and abroad.

Netanyahu hinted, in a riposte which did not explicitly name Gallant, that the retired admiral was making "excuses" for not yet having destroyed Hamas in a conflict now in its eight month.

But the veteran conservative premier soon appeared to be outflanked within his own war cabinet: Centrist ex-general Benny Gantz, the only voting member of the forum other than Netanyahu and Gallant, said the defence minister had "spoke(n) the truth".

While reiterating the Netanyahu government's goals of defeating Hamas and recovering remaining hostages from the Oct 7 cross-border rampage by the Islamist faction, Gallant said these must be complemented by laying the groundwork for alternative Palestinian rule.

"We must dismantle Hamas’ governing capabilities in Gaza. The key to this goal is military action, and the establishment of a governing alternative in Gaza," Gallant said.

"In the absence of such an alternative, only two negative options remain: Hamas' rule in Gaza or Israeli military rule in Gaza," he added, saying he would oppose the latter scenario and urging Netanyahu to formally forswear it.

Gallant said that, since October, he had tried to promote a plan to set up a "non-hostile Palestinian governing alternative" to Hamas - but got no response from the Israeli cabinet.

The format of his broadside, a pre-announced news conference carried live by Israeli TV and radio, recalled Gallant's bombshell warning in March 2023 that foment over a judicial overhaul pursued by Netanyahu was threatening military cohesion.

At the time, Netanyahu announced that Gallant would be fired - but backed down amid a deluge of street demonstrations. Some defence analysts believe Gallant's prediction was borne out by Hamas' ability to blindside Israeli forces a few months later.

Asked on Wednesday whether he was worried he may again face being ousted, Gallant said: "I'm not blaming anyone. In a democratic country, I believe, it's appropriate for a person, especially the defence minister who holds a position, to make it public."

Gallant's Gaza criticism recalled that of Israel's chief ally, the United States, which has sought to parlay the war into a role for the internationally backed Palestinian Authority (PA), which wields limited governance in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu has refused this, describing the PA as a hostile entity - and repeated this position in a video statement he issued on social media within an hour of Gallant's remarks.

Any move to create an alternative Gaza government requires that Hamas first be eliminated, Netanyahu said, finishing with the demand that this objective be pursued "without excuses".

Netanyahu's ruling coalition includes ultra-nationalist partners who want the PA dismantled and new Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Those partners have at times sparred with Gallant, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, over policy.

Netanyahu has said Israel would retain overall security control over Gaza after the war for the foreseeable future. He has stopped short of describing this scenario as an occupation - a status Washington does not want to see emerge - and has signalled opposition to Israelis settling the territory.

Over the last week, Israeli ground forces have returned to some areas of northern Gaza that they overran and quit in the first half of the war. Israel describes the new missions as planned crackdowns on efforts by Hamas holdouts to regroup, while Palestinians see evidence of the tenacity of the gunmen.

Briefing reporters on Tuesday, chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari was asked whether the absence of a post-Hamas strategy for Gaza was complicating operations.

"There is no doubt that an alternative to Hamas would generate pressure on Hamas, but that's a question for the government echelon," he responded.