The latest from the Middle East – 16 October, 2023

The latest from the Middle East – 16 October, 2023

Israel Media Says Gaza Operation Delayed On Fears Of Hezbollah Full Assault In North, Hamas Issues Hostage Video

(Update1720ET): Hamas has released a hostage ‘proof of life’ video which is now being widely shared online and reported on, per Israeli media:

The short video shows a young woman, 21-year-old Mia Schem, being treated after she was wounded in her arm, and later speaking to the camera.

Schem was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on October 7 while taking part in the desert rave in Kibbutz Re’im, where the gunmen also massacred over 260 festival-goers.

She tells the camera she was operated on for three hours and that “I’m being cared for, I’m getting medications. I’m only asking for me to be returned home as soon as possible, to my family, to my parents, to my siblings. Please get me out of here as soon as possible.” Schem’s family reacts to the clip, saying: “We’re happy.”

The IDF has reacted to the video, saying Hams “tries to present itself as a humanitarian organization while in fact it is a murderous terror group, responsible for the murders and kidnappings of babies, women, children and the elderly.”

There’s growing speculation that the IDF hasn’t launched a ground invasion yet due to threats being made by Iran and its ally Lebanese Hezbollah. And it’s not just enemies of Israel that are saying this, but The Jerusalem Post reports Monday that a prime reason for the offensive being stalled is the fear Hezbollah will get involved.

However, the IDF Northern Command has been tasked with ensuring complete readiness of defenses on the Lebanese border in case Hezbollah does get involved. The JPost writes:

A number of factors seem to have caused a delay, but sources have told The Jerusalem Post that one factor has been a growing concern that Hezbollah is waiting for the moment that most IDF ground forces are committed to Gaza to open a full front with the IDF in the north.

Iran is meanwhile ratcheting threats, perhaps as part of a strategy to bolster those voices inside Israel who are urging caution and restraint. Iran’s foreign minister has issued an ‘all options on the table’ kind of statement:

Israeli officials have continued to escalate their rhetoric concerning what Israel plans to do with Gaza:

PM Netanyahu has told Russia’s Putin in a Monday phone call that he plans to proceed with the Gaza offensive, after the latter warned of a catastrophic death toll…

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Update(1255ET): An active session of Israel’s Knesset in Jerusalem has been interrupted by a barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, which sent members of parliament into bomb shelters. Sirens blared across Jerusalem, as the Hamas rocket attacks continue. Israel’s all-out offensive was expected Friday or Saturday, but has still been delayed, with rain and bad weather also being among the list of reasons cited as of Monday.

But this gave time for a flurry of international diplomacy as the death toll soars on both sides. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistic has said the death toll among Palestinians and the West bank is now at its highest in two decades for 2023, as deaths from this round of fighting has surpassed 3,000. Deaths in Israel have surpassed 1,400 – with over 4,100 Israelis wounded.

US officials have reportedly been racing to contain the conflict and to find some kind of off-ramp, which would lead to freeing of hostages held in Gaza. All of this has reportedly included back-channel talks with Iran. On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that Hamas is prepared to release the hostages if Israel halts its ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip:

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Hamas officials “stated that they are ready to take necessary measures to release the citizens and civilians held by resistant groups, but their point was that such measures require preparations that are impossible under daily bombardment by the Zionists against various parts of Gaza,” The Associated Press reported.

But still the Iranian statement warned that Hamas still has “no problem to continue resisting.” Israel has meanwhile denied that it has plans for any ceasefire.

A new purported ‘targeted strike’ in Gaza by Israel, though the target or circumstances are as yet unknown. 

While Biden is still said to be mulling a visit to Israel, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is now ratcheting up his own diplomatic efforts. “Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the fevered diplomatic fray of the Middle East on Monday, speaking to five of the major players including Iran and leading Arab powers in an attempt to secure a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas,” Reuters reports.

“Russia, which has relationships with Iran, Hamas, major Arab powers as well as with the Palestinians and with Israel, has repeatedly said the United States and the West have ignored the need for an independent Palestinian state within 1967 borders.”

Putin has condemned the soaring death toll in Gaza, warning against the “catastrophic death toll” in Gaza which he says is looking likely given Israel’s reported invasion plans.

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Israeli military spokesperson continued to confirm that forces are preparing to implement a wide range of operational offensive plans which include combined coordinated strikes from the air, sea and land, while their goal is to completely destroy the governing and military capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist organisations. Furthermore, the spokesman said the operation will take a long time and that residents of Gaza should leave and not return until told to for their own safety but Hamas has been preventing people from leaving, according to Reuters.

At least 199 people are being held hostage by Hamas, according to Israeli officials who said on Monday that they had intelligence about the whereabouts of hostages taken on Oct. 7. Hamas has said that 22 hostages have died in Israeli retaliatory bombing of Gaza, a claim that couldn’t be verified.

Israeli military spokesperson said Hezbollah is escalating the situation on the Lebanon border to hinder the Gaza counter-offensive and Israel is prepared to fight on two fronts and even more if required, while an Israeli military spokesman said more than 600,000 Gazans have relocated southwards and that more than 200 Hamas members in the West Bank were detained since October 7th.

Israeli PM Netanyahu’s national security adviser said Israel is not trying to be drawn into a two-front war and that Hezbollah’s actions are under the escalation threshold so far, while the adviser added they hope Hezbollah won’t de facto bring about the destruction of Lebanon, according to Reuters.

Additionally, Iran is becoming even more vocal as President Raisi said in a phone call with French President Macron that “the Zionist regime’s actions are a reminder of Nazi actions”, while he also stated that Palestinian resistance groups make their own decisions and urged France to prevent oppression and injustice, according to Reuters.

US President Biden said deploying US troops in the Middle East war is not necessary and Israel has one of the finest fighting forces, while he is confident Israel is going to act under the rules of war and said it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza. Biden stated he believes Hamas must be eliminated entirely but said there must be a path to a Palestinian state and his message to Iran is don’t come across the border and don’t escalate the war, while it was also reported that President Biden is considering visiting Israel in the coming days.

US National Security Adviser Sullivan said the US does not have new intelligence that the threat on the ground is different today and there is a risk of conflict escalation. Sullivan added that they cannot rule out that Iran would choose to get directly engaged in some way and that the US is concerned about proxy forces, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran, according to a CBS interview.

US Secretary of State Blinken will head back to Israel on Monday for further consultations with Israeli leaders.

Latest Developments

Iran Says Hamas Is Ready to Release Hostages but Can’t Do So Under Israeli Bombing

And in perhaps the most positive news of the day, The Wall Street Journal reports that Hamas is ready to release hostages held in Gaza but isn’t able to do so under Israeli bombing, an official from Iran, a major Hamas backer, said Monday.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that any move to free the civilians would “require preparations that are impossible under daily bombardment by the Zionists against various parts of Gaza.”

Not exactly a promise, but perhaps some diplomatic progress.

* * *

Hamas Officials Killed, Israel Military Says

Several Hamas officials, including those in the military and financial sectors, have been killed, Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus said in a session with journalists on the X social media platform.

Conricus said Hamas is trying to hide behind civilians as Israel hunts its commanders. “We are not trying to kill civilians. We are at war with Hamas,” he said.

One Israeli civilian was killed by anti-tank missiles fired across the border from Lebanon, he said.

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Iranian Threats Escalate

Iranian Foreign Minister said “If the Zionist aggressions do not stop, the hands of all parties in the region are on the trigger” and warned heavy losses will be inflicted on the US if the scope of the Gaza war widens. Iran’s Foreign Minister also said that Iran will not remain an observer in this situation and informed Israel via its allies that ‘tomorrow will be too late’ if its crimes in Gaza continue.

Iran has reportedly made no decision about whether to open a new front against Israel, according to an Iranian source close to the government, but added that a meeting was to be held on Sunday night in a Hezbollah command center in Lebanon, NYT reported.

Iran’s mission to the UN said if Israel’s “war crimes, genocide” is not halted immediately, the situation could ricochet far-reaching consequences.

* * *

Biden Is Considering Visit to Israel

Biden is considering a trip to Israel after being invited in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to two people familiar with the internal discussions.

No decision about whether to travel to Israel has yet been made, the people said. Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement the White House did not have travel to announce.

Biden stressed his belief that Israel would act by the rules of war and that innocent civilians would have access to medicine, food and water in an interview with CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” He said he didn’t believe Israel should control the territory long-term, saying instead the territory should be governed by “a Palestinian authority.”

“I think it’d be a big mistake,” Biden said. “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people.”

* * *

Thirty US Citizens Confirmed Dead

The State Department confirmed the deaths of 30 US citizens since the violence started and another 13 American nationals remain unaccounted for, according to a spokesperson.

The government is working to determine the whereabouts of the missing Americans and is advising the Israeli government on hostage recovery efforts.

* * *

Egyptian Border Tensions Grow

Egypt is facing intense pressure to allow refugees in neighboring Gaza to cross the border and escape an expected Israeli ground invasion in the strip. Central to such a move is Rafah, the only civilian land crossing in Gaza that Israel doesn’t control.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, Egypt has appeared willing to let foreign citizens through the crossing but has been reluctant to allow a flood of Palestinian refugees enter, citing security threats.

A deal to open the border crossing has been held up, however, by Egyptian concerns that Israel hadn’t given assurances it would pause airstrikes and by Israeli insistence that trucks entering via Egypt be thoroughly searched, Egyptian officials said.

“Unfortunately, Israel has not yet allowed humanitarian aid to enter Gaza,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters in Cairo. The Israeli prime minister’s office declined to comment.

“We anticipate that the situation at the Rafah crossing will remain fluid and unpredictable and it is unclear whether, or for how long, travelers will be permitted to transit the crossing,” the U.S. Embassy in Egypt said. “There may be very little notice if the crossing opens and it may only open for a limited time.

* * *


Israeli army says it has begun bombing Hezbollah military sites in south Lebanon

Powerful explosions heard in south Lebanon.  Israeli army says it has begun directly bombing Hezbollah military sites in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah has, thus far, stayed OUT of the Hamas-Israel fight.  Now, Israel is pre-emptively attacking Hezbollah with intentional military air strikes against specifically targeted Hezbollah assets.   Said one observer “This has just started actual war between Israel and Hezbollah.”

Developing . . . check back

–Reinforcements for Hamas and for Hezbollah, from Iraqi armed factions, have arrived in southern Syria on the border with the occupied Golan Heights.

— The Official International Broadcasting Radio Network of Iran, “The Victory of God is near.”

— Israel PM Netanyahu tells Russia’s Vladimir Putin: “War won’t stop until Hamas capabilities are destroyed.”

— Blinken’s meetings with Netanyahu and his war cabinet still going. Nearly seven hours now. It’s currently 02:15 AM local time.

— Postponement of the UN Security Council meeting on the Gaza Strip The members of the Security Council were preparing to hold a voting session on the drafts of two Russian and Brazilian resolutions to stop the attacks on Gaza on Tuesday morning. However, the delegation of the United Arab Emirates demanded the postponement of this meeting of the Security Council in order to hold closed consultations on these two resolutions.

— UN Security Council is now holding an emergency session regarding the Gaza war — AP.

— According to the Iranian Foreign Minister, there could be “Preemptive Measures” taken by the Axis of Resistance against Israel in the coming hours; the Axis of Resistance includes Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah as well as any Anti-Western or Anti-Israeli Militia Groups across the Middle East which are under their Control.

— A UN official just told me civilians in Gaza are reduced to drinking sea water because clean water has run out. Body bags are running out, fuel for hospital generators powering ventilators will run out in hours. Food supply low. The bombing is intensifying.

— Palestinian sources report non-stop IDF attacks, including an attack on a house in Deir al-Balah in the center of the Gaza Strip, in addition to reports of wounded and dead in the house that was attacked.

–The official Twitter of the Iranian Republic published a strange tweet:

— Al Mayadeen Correspondent: Israeli occupation forces are intensively firing phosphorus shells over the border town of al-Dhayrah in southern Lebanon

— 3,731 residential building, comprising 10,500 housing units were completely destroyed by lsraeli warplanes, while another 10,000 were partially damaged, 7,100 of which became totally uninhabitable.

— 7:46 PM EDT — Blinken finally concluded his meeting with Israel’s war cabinet after 7.5hours, going way over schedule.  He is now heading to US Embassy for late night news statement.

— 8:03 PM EDT — Hamas says it is preparing to release non-Israeli hostages

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