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Netanyahu says Gaza needs a new 'civilian government,' but won't say who

Updated November 17, 2023 at 12:18 PM ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told NPR that Israel is committed to doing three things in Gaza: destroying Hamas, freeing the Israeli hostages it's holding and giving Gaza a different future.

But the interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep was notable for what the prime minister did not say: who he thinks should govern the territory with a population of 2.3 million, now devastated by six weeks of Israeli bombing.

Israel is responding to an attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Palestinian officials say the Israeli response has killed more than 11,000. Israeli troops now directly control much of northern Gaza, and this week occupied a major hospital center.

Before October 7, Israel had followed a policy of allowing Hamas to govern Gaza so that Israel would not have to. Israel now says Hamas cannot be allowed to rule.

Netanyahu said Israel must maintain "overall military responsibility" in Gaza "for the foreseeable future."

"Once we defeat Hamas, we have to make sure that there's no new Hamas, no resurgence of terrorism, and right now the only force that is able to secure that is Israel," Netanyahu said.

He added "there has to be a civilian government there," but declined to say who he thought it would be.

It's unclear who would replace Hamas in the seat of government. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority — which runs the West Bank — has said he is not interested — and Israel doesn't want that either.

"I think I know who it can't be — it can't be people committed to funding terrorism and inculcating terrorism," Netanyahu added.

An Israeli military officer told NPR in early November that some combination of "local and international" forces should govern Gaza, but no candidates for this role have emerged.

For all the latest developments on this story, listen to Morning Edition now.

Netanyahu compared the situation in Gaza to the Allies' occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II, after their surrender, for administrative and rehabilitative purposes (such a move by Israel, however, would likely be unilateral).

And he called for a similar "cultural change" in Gaza to those that took place in Germany and Japan when those countries transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracies after surrendering to the Allies. He added that any government in Gaza should be committed to fighting terrorism, not funding it.

Netanyahu says Israel has taken over Al-Shifa Hospital

This week, Israeli troops closed in on Gaza City's Al-Shifa Hospital, which is the territory's main hospital. Al-Shifa had effectively stopped functioning due to ground fighting, fuel shortages and lack of medical supplies resulting from Israel's blocking the entrance of most aid to Gaza.

Many patients, doctors and other civilians have remained in the hospital even as conditions have deteriorated.

Israel said Hamas had a command center underneath Al Shifa, an assertion that the U.S. has publicly supported and Hamas has denied. But those claims have not been independently confirmed.

The Israeli military said its troops found weapons and other equipment — as well as the bodies of two hostages — in the area of the complex. A Hamas spokesperson said Friday that the hostages had health conditions and were brought to the hospital to receive life-saving medical care.

Netanyahu said troops found weapons, ammunition, bombs and a "major" command center in the hospital, which he said Israel has now taken over. He added that as troops moved in, they brought Arabic-speaking doctors and incubators with them.

"This is, I think, the most humane takeover of a hospital commandeered by terrorists in history," he said.

The Geneva Conventions protect hospitals during war, but the safeguards are not absolute. Human rights groups continue to call for a cease-fire, which Netanyahu has said cannot happen until all the hostages are released.

Human rights groups have said that even if Hamas is operating in the hospitals, Israel does not have free rein to endanger civilians there.

Netanyahu condemns civilian deaths on both sides

Netanyahu said Hamas must be replaced with a government that wants to rebuild Gaza and cares for the future of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When asked how he expects to make peace with people who have lost their loved ones — in some cases their entire families — to Israel's military campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu said "any civilian death, and any death of any child, is a tragedy."

He said Israel is doing "everything we can" to minimize such deaths, and accused Hamas of doing the opposite. Israel asserts that Hamas is using civilians as human shields in Gaza hospitals, a practice that is illegal under international human rights law.

"Hamas is committing a double war crime," Netanyahu said. "It's both targeting our civilians, murdering them, mutilating them, but also hiding behind civilians as human shields."

Netanyahu again invoked Germany, repeating his claim that Hamas are "the new Nazis." Like Hamas, he said, Hitler's army implanted itself in civilian neighborhoods and hospitals, but that didn't stop the Allies from fighting it.

For all the latest developments on this story, listen to Morning Edition now.

"You had to act to try to minimize civilian casualties, but unfortunately many civilians were killed," he said. "Now I think history would have taken ... a totally different course if at the time public opinion was geared against the Allies, instead of being geared against the Nazis."

Human rights groups and many in the international community have called for a cease-fire, which Netanyahu has repeatedly said won't happen until Hamas releases all of the nearly 240 hostages it took from Israel.

Americans are split over Israel's response to the October 7 attack, with a new poll showing that a majority of Democrats now say it's been too much and a majority of Republicans say it's about right.

The Biden administration and the Israeli government oppose a cease-fire, saying it would give Hamas time to regroup and prepare new attacks. But the White House has advocated for what it's calling humanitarian pauses — a limited stop to fighting in a specific area to get aid in and hostages out.

Israel has instead agreed to what it's calling a humanitarian corridor, essentially allowing civilians stuck in northern Gaza to move south for several hours a day.

Netanyahu answers Israelis who say they've lost trust

Meanwhile, a growing number of Israelis are blaming their government for security lapses that they say made the country more vulnerable to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack. Some officials, including Israel's defense minister and the military chief of staff, have personally accepted responsibility.

Many Israelis are also angry at Netanyahu because they say he has not done enough to secure the release of the hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza (so far only four have been freed — two Americans and two Israelis). Their family members of the hostages and thousands of supporters are marching from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this week, in the hopes of increasing pressure on the government.

Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister — who has been in office for most of the past 16 years — was already deeply unpopular in many swaths of Israeli society. Last year he invited far-right ultranationalists to govern with him. And earlier this year he launched a controversial reform of Israel's judicial system that spurred massive protests.

A poll conducted earlier this month found 76% of Israelis want Netanyahu to resign. But he has said "the only thing that I intend to have resign is Hamas."

In the NPR interview, Netanyahu was played the voices of voters who said they were disappointed in his leadership after the October 7 attacks.One was Margalit Zur, the grandmother of an Israeli soldier.

"I don't trust the government," she said. "I don't trust Bibi first of all," using the prime minister's nickname.

Elyahu Merimy, a Tel Aviv taxi driver, said he had always voted for Netanyahu's Likud party. "But after what happened on the 7 of October, I don't know what to think about any one from the government, from the army, from the intelligence. I don't know what to say. How a thing like this can happen? I don't trust anyone anymore."

In response, Netanyahu said that after the "savagery" of the October 7 attack, his constituents' feelings were "understandable." But he insisted his country is "united today as never before."

The broadcast interview was edited by Reena Advani and produced by Lilly Quiroz and Shelby Hawkins.

For all the latest developments on this story, listen to Morning Edition now.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.