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Western capitals urge restraint in private discussions with Israel

Western capitals have privately urged Israel to delay a full-scale land invasion of Gaza as they seek to limit the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory and fear that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has no long-term plan to follow the destruction of Hamas.

Israel’s military said late on Saturday that it was increasing “operational readiness for the next stages of the war, with an emphasis on significant ground operations”.

It has been pounding Gaza with air strikes and artillery since last weekend’s attack by Hamas — which controls the coastal strip — killed more than 1,300 Israelis, mainly civilians, according to Israeli officials.

Israel on Friday ordered roughly half of Gaza’s 2.3mn citizens to relocate from the north of the territory to the south, and has cut water and electricity as it tightens its siege of the strip.

Israel’s bombardment has killed at least 2,329 people in Gaza, including many women and children, according to Palestinian officials.

People cook on firewood amid shortages of fuel and gas in Gaza © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Western officials have publicly been highly supportive of Israel and its right to defend itself, given the scale of the attack by Hamas, which has captured dozens of hostages, including people with US and European citizenship.

But privately the messaging has shifted to focus on containing the war to prevent it escalating into a broader regional conflict. There are fears that a new front risks being opened on Israel’s northern border with Hizbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese militant movement, as well as the dangers of an explosion of violence erupting in the occupied West Bank.

The US is sending a second aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean in a message of deterrence to Hizbollah and Iran.

As western leaders, ministers and diplomats have been in almost constant contact with Netanyahu and other senior officials they have also pressed Israel about “proportionality”, protecting civilians, allowing civilians to move away from danger, and about humanitarian access, a western official said. “We all have the same script,” the official added.

Netanyahu has vowed to “crush” Hamas, an Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007. But Arab and western diplomats warn about the huge challenges of destroying a group that is deeply entrenched in Gaza and embedded in Palestinian society.

“Their plan is to totally destroy Hamas, but they haven’t really thought through the day after,” said the western official. “Israel is in shock, they’re angry, and it’s very clear to everyone they’re going to go into Gaza in a way never done before since 2005.”

Netanyahu has, in conversations with western officials, described Israel’s Gaza assault as “stage one” in a multi-step operation designed to “restore [Israel’s] deterrence” in the region, people briefed on those conversations told the Financial Times.

Israeli armoured vehicles advance towards the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday © Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli prime minister has also told interlocutors that he believes the harsher the response against Hamas and Gaza, the less likely Iran or Hizbollah would decide to attack the Jewish state.

“What’s the end game? That’s the big question now,” said one Arab diplomat. “Where is Israel after this event, where is Gaza and where is Hamas? . . . You cannot destroy Hamas completely.”

Arab leaders have also become increasingly concerned about what they describe as the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza.

French president Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with Netanyahu on Saturday, is trying to urge countries to work together to open up a longer-term political path to exiting the crisis, with an eye on an eventual solution that would deliver the Palestinians a viable state of their own.  

Medics with trucks loaded with aid wait for clearance to cross the Egypt-Gaza border © Ali Moustafa/AFP/Getty Images

That chimes with the position of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who has used regular calls with Macron, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and other European leaders to plead that the immediate crisis must result in a new initiative towards solving the longer-term Israel-Palestine conflict.

“We need to be capable of both containing the crisis and reopening a political perspective,” said one Elysée official.

France has also been trying to send signals to Iran to exercise restraint to avoid opening a second front on with Lebanon that would lead to the collapse of the country, a concern held in Brussels and other EU capitals.

Western diplomats have cautioned against Netanyahu’s assertions to them that the operation against Gaza will take “weeks”, instead suggesting a longer and more drawn-out conflict is likelier.

Israel-Hamas war

That has prompted a wave of private pressure on the Israeli government to rethink its approach and to better minimise civilian casualties.

Western governments are also working with Egypt and other back-channels, including Qatar and Turkey, in an effort to find possible evacuation routes for their citizens in Gaza.

Qatar, a US ally that hosts Hamas’s political office, is also working to secure the release of the hostages held by the militant group.

The calls for respect for international law are in response to mounting fears about the impact of instability spreading into Egypt, which borders Gaza, and fears Israel might attempt to push Palestinians into Egyptian territory.

Sisi has used calls with western leaders to stress that the country is unable to handle hundreds of thousands of likely refugees, and that they presented a significant security risk to the north African state.

“The first five, six days, because [the October 7 attack] was horrific, everyone was 100 per cent behind the Israelis. But it has changed,” said a western official.

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