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Netanyahu fends off criticism at home and abroad over his lack of a postwar plan for Gaza

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday fended off criticism that he is not planning for a postwar reality in the Gaza Strip, saying it was impossible to prepare for any scenario in the embattled Palestinian enclave until Hamas is defeated.

Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from critics at home and allies abroad, especially the United States, to present a plan for governance, security and rebuilding of Gaza.

He has indicated Israel seeks to maintain open-ended control over security affairs and rejected a role for the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. That position stands in contrast to the vision set forth by the Biden administration, which wants Palestinian governance in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank as a precursor to Palestinian statehood.

The debate over a postwar vision for Gaza comes as fighting has erupted again in places Israel had targeted in the early days of the war and said it had under control, as well as in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, which has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.

For Palestinians, that displacement has renewed painful memories of mass expulsion from what is now Israel in the war surrounding the country’s creation in 1948. Palestinians across the Middle East on Wednesday were marking the 76th anniversary of that event.

The latest war began on Oct. 7 with Hamas’ rampage across southern Israel, through some of the same areas where Palestinians fled from their villages decades earlier. Palestinian militants killed some 1.200 people that day, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage.

Israel’s fierce response has obliterated entire neighborhoods in Gaza and forced some 80% of the population to flee their homes. Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants in its count. The U.N. says there is widespread hunger and that northern Gaza is in “full-blown famine.”

‘THE DAY AFTER’

The renewed fighting in areas where Israel’s military had largely asserted control, as well as a recent uptick in rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel, suggests that Hamas is regrouping. That has prompted criticism in Israel that Netanyahu is squandering military gains in Gaza by not moving toward a postwar vision for the territory.

Netanyahu said Israel has been trying for months to find a solution to “this complex problem,” but that a postwar plan could not be promoted so long as Hamas was not defeated. He said Israel had tried to enlist local Palestinians to assist with food distribution but that the effort failed because Hamas threatened them, a claim that could not be verified.

“All the talk about ‘the day after,’ while Hamas stays intact, will remain mere words devoid of content,” Netanyahu said.

Senior members of his Cabinet disagree. In a nationally televised statement Wednesday, Netanyahu’s defense minister increased the criticism, saying he had repeatedly pleaded with the Cabinet to make a decision on a postwar vision for Gaza that would see the creation of a new Palestinian civilian leadership. Yoav Gallant, a member of the three-man War Cabinet, said the government has refused to discuss the issue.

Gallant said not doing so would produce a reality where Israel could again exert civilian control over the Gaza Strip, which he said he opposed. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the territory in 2005 after capturing it in the 1967 Mideast war.

“I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be advanced immediately,” he said, suggesting Netanyahu’s decision-making was based on political considerations.

Hamas’ top leader Ismail Haniyeh said Wednesday in response to the debate over Gaza’s postwar future that “the Hamas movement is here to stay.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken chided Israel for the lack of a plan in some of his strongest public criticism.

Disagreements over Gaza’s future have led to increasingly public friction between Israel and the U.S., its closest ally. The U.S. has also been outspoken against an Israeli incursion into Rafah, which Israel sees as essential to defeating Hamas but where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have sought shelter.

Israeli troops launched operations in Rafah last week, seizing the nearby crossing into Egypt and moving into eastern districts of the city in battles with Hamas fighters. Though still short of the full-on invasion Israel has threatened, the incursion has already caused chaos.

The United Nations said Wednesday that over the last week, as Israeli forces have moved into parts of Rafah, some 600,000 have fled the city. During that time, another 100,000 have fled parts of northern Gaza that the Israeli military has reinvaded.

SAME SCENES PLAY OUT

The Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” refers to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what today is Israel before and during the 1948 war surrounding its creation, in which five Arab countries attacked the nascent state.

More than twice that number have been displaced within Gaza in the latest war.

The refugees and their descendants number some 6 million and live in built-up refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In Gaza, they are the majority of the population, with most families having been pushed out of what is now central and southern Israel.

Israel rejects what the Palestinians say is their right of return because if it was fully implemented, it would likely result in a Palestinian majority within Israel’s borders.

“We lived through the Nakba not just once, but several times,” said Umm Shadi Sheikh Khalil, who was displaced from Gaza City and now lives in a tent in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah.

At a center for older residents of the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Amina Taher recalled the day her family’s house in the village of Deir al-Qassi, in today’s northern Israel, collapsed over their heads after being shelled by Israeli forces in 1948. The house was next to a school that Palestinian fighters used as a base, she said.

Taher, then 3, was pulled from the rubble unharmed, but her 1-year-old sister was killed. Now she has seen the same scenes play out in news coverage of Gaza.

“When I would watch the news, I had a mental breakdown because then I remembered when the house fell on me,” she said. “What harm did these children do to get killed like this?”

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Sewell reported from Beirut and Shurafa from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

By TIA GOLDENBERG, WAFAA SHURAFA and ABBY SEWELL
Associated Press

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