March 20th – Day 166 of the war: News in Brief


1. The UK’s largest delivery of aid to Gaza since the start of the war has crossed the border and begun to be distributed. More than 2,000 tonnes of food aid is being distributed by the World Food Programme, adding to the 150 tonnes of UK funded relief items including blankets and tents, which arrived on Wednesday. According to COGAT, 248 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were yesterday inspected by Israel and transferred to Gaza. However, of those 248, only 126 humanitarian aid trucks were distributed by UN aid organisations, leaving 122 waiting to be distributed. Around two thirds of these trucks carry food, with the rest carrying medical equipment, water and shelter equipment. Israel has placed no limit on the amount of food that can enter the Gaza Strip with 29 of the food aid trucks entering yesterday making their way up to northern Gaza. Kamal Adwan Hospital was also restocked with medical supplies and Jabalia Health Centre was refuelled.

2. The IDF is continuing their targeted operation within the compound of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. According to the IDF, “Over the past day, the troops have eliminated terrorists and located weapons in the hospital area, while preventing harm to civilians, patients, medical teams, and medical equipment.” According to the army they have killed, “approximately 90 terrorists in the area, the IDF and ISA have questioned over 300 suspects at the compound, and an additional 160 suspects have been transferred to Israeli territory for further questioning.” Among those arrested were “prominent terrorists” from Hamas who the IDF say were involved in directing terror in the West Bank, well as terrorists from the “Rocket Unit” of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. During the fighting a 51-year-old IDF reservist, Sebastian Haion, was killed in action. He is the 251st IDF fatality since the ground incursion begun. In parallel, the IDF continues to operate against Hamas operatives and infrastructure across the Gaza Strip, including in Khan Yunis and central areas. In addition, Palestinian sources are reporting on an air strike in Rafah. Also yesterday, a rocket was launched from northern Gaza toward the city of Sderot, but fell inside the Gaza Strip. In response, an Israeli aircraft struck an operational Hamas tunnel shaft in the area of the launch.

3. In hostage negotiation talks in Doha, Israeli officials have received Hamas’s latest demands. These include: 40 hostages to be released in exchange for 950 prisoners, to be chosen by Hamas; 50 prisoners, including 30 “heavyweight” prisoners, to be chosen by Hamas and to be released in exchange for every female soldier being held captive (coming to a total of 250 prisoners for the female soldiers); a full civilian return of northern Gaza. Israeli news reports suggest that Hamas’s Gazan leader Yahya Sinwar has shifted the priority focus from the release of “heavyweight” prisoners to the return of northern Gazans to their former places of residence. With Israel reluctant to agree to a full-scale return, if true this could prove a significant stumbling block in negotiations. Delays are expected, caused by the relay of information from Doha to Hamas’s Gazan leadership. One Israeli official told Channel 12: “Even if there is a foreign-based branch of Hamas, they have no mandate at all to make decisions. Every comma, every period takes between 24-36 hours. This is going to be a complicated process.” The Israeli delegation is said to have been given a limited remit by the political echelon, as a tactic to test the seriousness of Hamas’s commitment to a deal. Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, hostage families joined protesters demanding “No return from Qatar without a deal” in blocking northbound traffic on the Ayalon Highway this morning.

4. Two senior Israeli delegations will visit the US next week. The Government announced that one delegation, consisting of Strategic Affairs Minister Dermer and National Security Council Director Hanegbi will conduct talks on a potential operation in Rafah, while Defence Minister Gallant will visit his US counterpart Lloyd Austin. The US will present Israel a plan designed to avoid a major operation in Rafah. The US plan would allow for targeted operations against Hamas, while focussing on stopping the supply of weapons smuggled to Hamas through the Egypt to Gaza Philadelphi Corridor. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying that in discussions with the US, “the prime minister stressed that he is determined to operate in Rafah in order to eliminate for good the remaining Hamas battalions while offering humanitarian solutions to the civilian population.”

5. Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that “there are elements in Israel who are cooperating with the Americans to prevent entry to Rafah.” Netanyahu also claimed that an all-for-all hostage deal, which would see all remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza freed in exchange for the full list of Palestinian security prisoners whose release is demanded by Hamas, was impossible. Referring to the current negotiation, whose terms would see 40 Israeli hostages released in return for a limited release of Palestinians, he said “If we don’t get the 40 hostages now, we’re not going to get any hostages at all.” Netanyahu came under fire in the meeting for his apparent agreement to a pilot programme allowing Palestinian workers from the West Bank back to work in Israel – a move supported by the military and intelligence establishments. The prime minister also appeared to criticise Israel’s public diplomacy apparatus, saying “the problem is that there aren’t any people. You are surrounded by people who don’t know how to string two words together in English.” In related news, Israel’s Channel 12 reported last night that Eylon Levy, the British-born spokesman who has fronted much of Israel’s English-language response since October 7th, has been suspended. The channel claims Levy has been sidelined following a complaint from the UK over a tweet Levy sent in reply to British Foreign Secretary Cameron over the question of aid. Cameron’s tweet said “We continue to urge Israel to allow more trucks into Gaza as the fastest way to get aid to those who need it,” to which Levy responded, in a tweet now deleted, “I hope you are also aware there are NO limits on the entry of food, water, medicine, or shelter equipment into Gaza, and in fact the crossings have EXCESS capacity… Test us. Send another 100 trucks a day to Kerem Shalom and we’ll get them in.”

6. A Shin Bet agent remains in serious condition following a terrorist attack near the Gush Etzion settlement Bloc in the West Bank yesterday. Ziad Hamran, 30, from the northern West Bank city of Jenin, opened fire on the agent and his colleague while they were conducting routine work. The second Shin Bet agent was lightly injured, while both agents managed to return fire and kill their attacker. It remains unclear whether Hamran was a source the agents were preparing to meet, or whether he followed their source to a meeting. While the major conflagration desired by Hamas in the West Bank in the aftermath of October 7th has not transpired, Israel has conducted nightly raids targeting known groups and individuals. Palestinian sources say over 400 have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war in Gaza, most in clashes with Israeli forces.

7. Once again, throughout yesterday there were numerous rockets launched from Lebanon into several areas in Israeli territory. In one incident, two soldiers were lightly and moderately wounded from rocket fire toward Kibbutz Manara. The soldiers were evacuated to hospital to receive medical treatment. In addition, the IDF said that a suspected aerial target crossed from Lebanon into Israel in the area of Yiftach and was successfully intercepted. In a familiar pattern, the IDF returned fire to the source of the launches as well as attacking Hezbollah infrastructure in areas close to the border. In a separate incident, an IDF soldier identified a Hezbollah terrorist operating out of an observation post belonging to Hezbollah in the area of Marwahin. Following this, IDF fighter jets struck the post. According to Arab media reports, five senior commanders of pro-Iranian militias in Syria, including a Hezbollah leader, were killed in an airstrike targeting the town of Mayadin in the eastern Deir ez-Zor area.

8. Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced last night that Ottawa would suspend arms exports to Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in response: “I am sorry that the government of Canada is taking this step that undermines Israel’s right to self-defence in the face of Hamas murderers who carried out terrible crimes against humanity and against innocent Israelis, including the elderly, women and children. History will judge the current acts of Canada harshly.” As part of the same process, the Canadian Parliament last night passed a non-binding motion calling on the international community to work towards a two-state solution, after the initial wording which would have supported unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state was dropped. Other wording was also inserted to label Hamas as a terrorist organisation, affirm that Israel has a right to defend itself, and demand that Hamas release all hostages and lay down its arms.

9. The IDF has acknowledged that a cruise missile fired on Sunday penetrated Israel’s anti-missile air defence system. The missile, presumably launched by the Houthis in Yemen, entered Israeli air space from the Red Sea in the south and fell in open terrain north of the city of Eilat. The IDF further noted, the “target was monitored by IAF troops throughout the incident. No injuries were reported and no damage was caused,” but that the incident is under review. So far the Houthis have launched over 50 attacks directed towards Israel. Most have been intercepted by Israel’s Arrow defence systems, others by US naval vessels and even by Saudi Arabia when they crossed their airspace.