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The War in Gaza: Phase Three
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The War in Gaza: Phase Three

Israeli officials announce a new strategy of precision strikes aimed at Hamas leadership.

Happy Wednesday! Disney might still be sore about losing its copyright for Steamboat Willie, but we’ve got a new character idea: this real-life mouse who apparently loves to tidy things up at night in a Welsh man’s shed.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency and imposed a nationwide curfew on Monday in response to what he described as an “internal armed conflict” amid escalating gang violence throughout the South American country in recent days. The escapes of prominent gang leaders, Fabricio Colón Pico and José Adolfo Macías Villamar, from police custody on Sunday precipitated the chaos, which included explosions, prison riots, police kidnappings, and armed gangsters taking over a live television broadcast. Noboa has ordered the country’s “armed forces to execute military operations under international humanitarian law to neutralize the identified groups,” labeling 22 gangs as terrorist organizations.
  • Doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center disclosed in a statement on Tuesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December. Austin’s hospitalization last week was the result of complications that developed from a surgery he had on December 22 to treat the cancer, during which he was under general anesthesia. The White House also disclosed that, although President Joe Biden was informed last Friday of Austin’s early January hospitalization, the White House didn’t know about his cancer diagnosis until yesterday. The White House ordered a review of administration procedures on Tuesday making clear that cabinet secretaries should inform the White House “in the event of a delegation of authority or potential delegation,” but White House spokesman John Kirby said Biden still has “full faith and confidence” in Austin. 
  • Meta announced Tuesday that it will begin blocking certain types of harmful content from teenage users’ Facebook and Instagram accounts, including videos and posts related to self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders. “Now, when people search for terms related to suicide, self-harm and eating disorders, we’ll start hiding these related results and will direct them to expert resources for help,” the company said in a blog post about the changes, clarifying that teens wouldn’t see such content in their feeds even if shared by someone they follow. The changes come as dozens of states are suing Meta over the alleged harm the company’s platforms and features have imposed on younger users. 
  • President Joe Biden on Monday renominated Julie Su to serve as the secretary of labor, after her original nomination stalled in the Senate for more than 10 months. Su has been serving as the acting secretary since Marty Walsh left the role in February 2023 to become the head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Republican senators uniformly opposed her nomination, and the Biden administration appeared unable to get some moderate Democrats on board last summer. It’s unclear so far if any of the holdouts on Su have changed their position.
  • Robert Woodland Romanov, a Russian-American dual citizen, was arrested in Russia on Friday on drug charges, according to a statement from the Ostankino District Court of Moscow released Tuesday, and he will remain in detention for two months pending an investigation and trial. Romanov is the latest of several American citizens to be arrested and detained in Russia in recent years: WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained for 10 months on accusations of carrying narcotics in her luggage and was eventually freed in a prisoner swap. Marc Fogel, a 62-year-old schoolteacher arrested on drug charges more than two years ago, remains behind bars. Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine and security executive, has been held in Russia since 2018—wrongfully, according to the U.S. State Department—and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been detained since last March.
  • A federal appeals court on Tuesday considered former President Donald Trump’s claims of immunity from prosecution related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. A three-judge panel heard oral arguments from Trump’s lawyer, D. John Sauer, and James Pearce, a Justice Department prosecutor working under special counsel Jack Smith. At one point during the hearing, the panel presented a hypothetical situation, positing the president ordered Seal Team Six to assassinate a political rival—and asked if that would be covered by presidential immunity. Sauer said the president would be immune from prosecution unless he was first impeached and convicted. The judges reacted skeptically to Sauer’s response, but also expressed uncertainty about how they’d rule on the appeal and concern over the scope and ramifications of a decision on presidential immunity.  
  • Mike Roman—a former Trump campaign aide and current co-defendant with Trump in the Georgia election interference case—accused Fani Willis, the Fulton County district attorney leading the case, of having an improper relationship with a special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, also working on the case. Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, filed a motion on Monday asking the judge to disqualify Willis from the case and dismiss the entire criminal indictment. Merchant alleged in the filing that Willis and Wade have vacationed together, creating a financial conflict of interest since Willis hired Wade, who has received more than $650,000 in legal fees from the county since January 2022. The filing did not include evidence to prove the allegations, but claimed unnamed sources “have confirmed” the pair’s relationship. A spokesperson for Willis said her office would respond to the allegations “through appropriate court filings.”
  • Republican Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana—former Vice President Mike Pence’s brother—announced on Tuesday that he will retire from Congress at the end of his current term. “In 2017, I ran for Congress because I was ready to serve again,” the 67-year-old said in a statement. “As a former Marine Officer, I approached the job with purpose. After three terms, I’ve made the decision to not file for reelection.” Across the aisle, 84-year-old Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, from Maryland, quashed speculation yesterday that he would retire, announcing he’ll run for his 23rd congressional term.

Greenlighting Phase Three

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his official visit as part of Middle East Tour, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 9, 2024. (Photo by Kobi Gideon (GPO) / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his official visit as part of Middle East Tour, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 9, 2024. (Photo by Kobi Gideon (GPO) / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

At a campaign stop on Monday at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina—the site of a horrific, racially motivated shooting in 2015 that left nine black Americans dead—President Joe Biden’s speech was interrupted by protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Responding to the protesters, Biden seemed to confirm his role in encouraging a shift in Israel’s military strategy. “I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza,” he said.

Over the past several days, Israeli military officials have confirmed their intentions to shift toward what they’re calling “phase three” of the war against the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, which is said to include more precision strikes aimed at terrorist leadership and fewer troops and airstrikes. As the war nears its hundredth day and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have cleared out much of the terrorist infrastructure in northern Gaza, Israeli leaders have determined—perhaps in response to pressure from the United States and elsewhere—it’s time for a shift in strategy.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, chief spokesman for the IDF, told the New York Times on Monday that the Israeli military would begin altering its approach as the bulk of the fighting moves to southern Gaza: “surgical missions” focused on eliminating leadership and infrastructure and rescuing hostages. “The challenge in southern Gaza, and especially in places like Khan Yunis and Rafah, is they’re already pretty densely populated, and now they’re swarmed with refugees, and most of the Hamas fire is there,” Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, told TMD. “So after [95 days], the wholesale bombing of targets in southern Gaza is going to be very difficult because of the even worse population density than existed in the north.”

The shifting strategy is not without its costs—on Monday, nine Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza in three separate incidents, including an explosion in the Bureij area of central Gaza that killed six and was reportedly the result of friendly fire. “It’s clear to people in Israel, as they see these numbers, this high rate of casualties that’s gone up significantly in the second and third phase of war when Israel has reeled back some of its heavy weaponry, they’ve seen the casualty numbers go up,” Enia Krivine, senior director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Israel Program, told TMD. “And that’s a really hard sell domestically.”

That hasn’t stopped Israeli—or American—leaders from making the case for the tactical update. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel and the wider Middle East this week, on his fourth trip to the region since the conflict began, and reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid harming civilians or civilian infrastructure in Gaza. At a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, he again stressed the importance of balancing Israel’s security interests with the need to protect Gazan civilians. Blinken also stated that a “clear pathway to the realization of Palestinian political rights and a Palestinian state” is necessary for long-term stability and peace in the region.

Though Krivine still believes the Biden administration stands firmly with Israel, and that Israel would still continue its war against Hamas with or without American support, she suggested that continued comments from the Biden administration are having some effect. “The U.S. is putting real pressure on Israel right now to change its tack and to be much more pinpoint and targeted in its operations,” she said. “And sometimes when I hear the IDF, Defense Minister [Yoav] Gallant, and others use this language, it seems like it’s almost to appease the U.S.” 

Despite the external pressure, however, Krivine still believes Israel will make strategic decisions based on the best interests, primarily, of its own soldiers. “The U.S. wants less civilian casualties,” she said, “and often there’s a direct correlation between how many measures a military takes to protect civilian life … and the amount of casualties that your military will take.” 

As Kevin Williamson argues in a piece on the site today, “there will be significant civilian casualties, or Israel will abandon its military objectives. That’s the choice forced on Israel by Hamas. Avoiding such casualties is a legitimate, but subordinate, concern.”

Also addressed by Blinken during his Middle East trip was the increase in violence between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed terrorist group has accused Israel of killing several of its members in the last two days, including Wissam Tawil and Ali Hussein Burji, who have led operations along the Israel-Lebanon border. Though this fighting has yet to expand into a full-fledged second front, some analysts worry that it’s just a matter of time given Hezbollah’s continued bombardment of northern Israel. “These attacks are getting bold,” Krivine told TMD, referencing a drone attack launched by Hezbollah on Tuesday targeting an Israeli army base. “[Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah] is rolling the dice with every single attack on Israel, because one miscalculation, one mass casualty event, one armored vehicle that gets blown up and sees multiple soldiers killed on one day, could change everything.”

Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem, however, has claimed that the organization does not want to see the war expand—and this could reflect the wishes of Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, as well. “Nasrallah has gotten a clear message from Iran,” said Hoffman. “They don’t want it to escalate.” Iran, Hoffman noted, will continue to strike at the U.S. through its proxies in the Red Sea, leaving Hezbollah as a sort of last line of defense. “Hezbollah and its weaponry or its missile arsenal is there to protect Iran if and when Israel or the United States decides ever to attack,” he continued. “And I think Nasrallah is under very strict instructions not to use it for anything else.”

But according to Krivine, there’s a real possibility that he has to. “One miscalculation, one bit of bad intel on the side of Hezbollah, and Israel may just strike and may take this opportunity to seriously degrade the terrorist organization,” said Krivine. “Because after October 7, Israel’s deterrence calculation and its whole paradigm of how Israel can live side-by-side with these terror organizations has changed.” An estimated 250,000 Israelis are internally displaced from the country’s north and south, with no plans to return home while the cross-border threats remain.

Such is the ultimate goal of the third phase of the war in Gaza—surgically removing Hamas as a military and political entity in the enclave. As for how long this conflict could take, or how many phases there will be, ongoing fighting in the West Bank may serve as a model. “That is an ongoing conflict that has been raging for a couple of years now,” said Krivine. “The number of attacks in the West Bank have been in the hundreds. So there’s essentially a counter-insurgency that has been going on for years in the West Bank, and the future of Gaza probably looks like that.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu vowed once again to continue the war until Israel achieved all of its goals. “My government directed the IDF to go to war to eliminate Hamas, return our hostages, and ensure that Gaza will never again be a threat to Israel,” he said. “Until then, and to that end, everything must be put aside and we must continue with united forces until absolute victory is achieved.”

It’s ultimately up to Israel to assess whether those goals have been met and when victory has been achieved. “As long as the U.S. is satisfied that Israel is changing from tactics that are causing lots of civilian casualties to much more circumscribed and surgical ones, again, this trajectory just continues,” Hoffman told TMD, noting that we could be watching the slow winding down of war in Gaza for quite some time. 

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for Law and Liberty, Jonathan Leaf argued comparisons between contemporary America and the Roman Empire miss the mark—and that more apt parallels can be made with the Roman Republic. He outlined the problems that precipitated the empire’s downfall: inflation, economic stagnation, famine, and civil wars among competing generals. “Now ask yourself if any of this sounds like America today,” Leaf wrote. “Have we had prices rise 35 [percent] each year? Do we depend upon slaves to feed ourselves? Do we have foreign legions within our army? Do the bulk of our taxes go towards rewarding soldiers loyal to the latest usurper? Do we have an economy void of innovation or invention? Are our cities depopulated? Are our politicians generals who achieve power by fighting other generals? Obviously, our country is not like this. The irony is that there is a worthwhile and important example from ancient times that is worthy of our study, one that our founding fathers pointed to frequently: the fall of the Roman Republic.”

Presented Without Comment

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, asked about President Biden not knowing of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s diagnosis for a month:

“It is not optimal.”

Also Presented Without Comment

An unnamed, non-Freedom Caucus House Republican, describing House Speaker Mike Johnson’s precarious situation within the GOP conference to Punchbowl News

“Significant concerns growing about Mike’s ability to jump to this level and deliver conservative wins. Growing feeling that he’s in way, way over his head. As much as there was valid criticism and frustration with Kevin, Mike is struggling to grow into the job and is just getting rolled even more than McCarthy did.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • GOP candidates’ uphill caucuses climb, Nikki Haley’s attempt to crack the MAGA base, Ron DeSantis’ donor money woes, and the effects of an untimely winter snowstorm in Iowa–Kevin, Mike, Drucker, and Andrew discussed all that and more on last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • In the newsletters: Nick floated a deal in which Chris Christie offers to quit the GOP primary in exchange for Nikki Haley committing not to endorse Trump.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah is joined by longtime Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee on The Remnant to discuss whether one of Trump’s challengers could still make a comeback, Biden’s ability to make it through a full campaign season, and much more.
  • On the site: Katherine Zimmerman explains why the Islamic State attack on Iran should be a cause for concern in the West, Kevin unpacks how Israel is losing the propaganda war against Hamas, and Jonah argues that the GOP needs more RINOs. 

Let Us Know

Do you think there is a domestic political calculus behind President Joe Biden’s efforts to press Israel for more precisely targeted strikes against Hamas in Gaza?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.