In mid-December, the Israeli army discovered the bodies of three of the hostages kidnapped from southern Israel to the Gaza Strip on October 7: the soldiers Ron Sherman and Nik Beizer, and the civilian Elia Toledano. Their families were initially informed that the three men had been killed in Hamas captivity, but Maayan, the mother of Sherman, soon declared otherwise.
“Ron was indeed murdered,” she wrote on her Facebook page on Jan. 16, but “not by Hamas.” Instead, she asserted, her son was killed by “bombings with poisonous gasses.”
Maayan made her claim after reading the inconclusive findings of a pathology report, presented to her by a delegation from the Israeli army’s casualties department and the 551st brigade, whose soldiers recovered Sherman’s body from Gaza. “The delegation told us that they don’t rule out gas poisoning as a result of IDF bombings, but they’re not certain,” she told +972 Magazine and Local Call.
According to two Israeli security sources who spoke to +972 and Local Call on the condition of anonymity, this wouldn’t be the first time that Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas’ network of underground tunnels in Gaza have killed people in this way. The army, they say, is well aware that bombs exploding in tunnels can disperse toxic gasses such as carbon monoxide.
In May 2021, for example, amid its broader assault named “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” the Israeli army launched a specific attack on Hamas’ tunnel network which it called “Operation Lightning Strike.” Gadi Eizenkot, who was the IDF Chief of Staff when the operation was planned and is now a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said later that the operation was intended to “turn the tunnels into a death trap” and kill hundreds of Hamas members.
During those attacks, which ultimately killed only a few dozen Hamas members, those hiding in tunnels were killed “not only from a bomb that hit them, but also from the fact that the bombings release gasses inside the tunnels,” a source told +972 and Local Call.
The source explained that the army did not use a chemical or biological warhead, but rather discovered that certain bombs penetrating the tunnels could, as a byproduct, spread toxic gas “over a long distance” in a closed compound. A second source confirmed this, adding that tests have been conducted in the military on the subject which have shown that inhaling these gasses in confined spaces is lethal.
+972 and Local Call could not confirm whether suffocation by toxic gas was a deliberate tactic used by the Israeli army in the current war to kill Hamas members hiding in tunnels.
In response to these allegations, the IDF Spokesperson told +972 and Local Call that the army “uses legal means of warfare only, in accordance with international law. The IDF did not in the past, and does not currently, use byproducts of bombings to harm its targets.”
‘Israelis and Palestinians were equal — both lives were disregarded’
The Israeli army announced earlier this month that the bodies of Ron Sherman and the other two hostages were found near the site of an underground tunnel in which the commander of Hamas’ northern Gaza brigade, Ahmed Ghandour, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike in mid-November. Maayan accuses the Israeli military of knowingly killing her son in the strike to assassinate Ghandour.
An Israeli security source privy to information about the attack told +972 and Local Call that they did not know if the army suspected that there were Israeli hostages being held near Ghandour. But in order to kill the Hamas commander, the source said, the army bombed a building full of Palestinian civilians, knowingly killing dozens of them.
“Ghandour was under a very large building,” the source said. “We bombed knowing that the entire building would collapse. Many civilians were killed. But Ghandour wasn’t there. They missed. It took a second strike to kill him, also with a lot of collateral damage.”
IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari asserted that “the IDF did not know about the presence of hostages in the area.” He made similar remarks again after Hamas released a video in which the hostage Noa Argamani states that two of the hostages with whom she was being held were killed in an airstrike: “We [the army] do not attack places where we know there may be hostages,” Hagari said.
However, Hagari’s statements are inconsistent with the testimony of a senior security source, which is revealed here for the first time. The source told +972 and Local Call that during the first weeks of the war, the Israeli army systematically targeted Palestinians defined as “kidnappers” — those who abducted Israelis during the Hamas-led October 7 attack — with its bombings, despite a concern that there were hostages being held next to them. According to the source, Israeli abductees were “certainly hit” in these bombings; only later did this policy change.
“We bombed Palestinians suspected of being kidnappers,” the source said. “We found such suspects and we bombed them. And it was surreal, because you see in the identification of the person you are bombing that he is a ‘suspected kidnapper’ of Israelis, meaning that there is a chance there are hostages next to him. In retrospect, we know that many Israelis were held underground. But for sure, mistakes happened and we bombed hostages.”
The decision to bomb kidnappers, the source suspected, was not made at the military level. “This is the political echelon, in my opinion,” they explained. “We bombed a lot of kidnappers. More than a few dozen, and less than a hundred. Absurdly, Israeli and Palestinian civilians were equal there — both of their lives were disregarded.”
Only later in the war did the army’s prisoner of war and missing persons department inform them of the areas that they should not strike, due to fear that hostages would be harmed. “At the start of the war, this didn’t happen,” the source said. “There was no protocol about the hostages. They weren’t taken into account.
“I remember leaving the army base for the first time two or three weeks [into the war], and realizing that there were demonstrations about the hostages and that everyone here was talking about this issue,” the source continued. “And it was surreal for me, because it wasn’t until I went home that I really found out their names and how many people were kidnapped.”
The source explained that the Palestinians who were targeted because they were suspected kidnappers were not necessarily holding Israelis in their homes, but that this was likely; no checks were conducted before striking them. “We weren’t dealing with that at all at the start of the war,” they said. “The atmosphere was very painful and vengeful. We would bomb any Palestinian kidnapper.”
The source’s testimony is relevant only to the initial stages of Israel’s Gaza onslaught. In an investigation last month by +972 and Local Call, three intelligence sources confirmed that bombings were not carried out by the army if they would knowingly kill hostages, but in many cases the intelligence picture was incomplete.
‘The state sacrificed them twice’
After the Israeli army initially claimed that the three hostages were killed by Hamas, pathology reports on Ron Sherman and Nik Beizer’s bodies found no external signs of injury, such as bullet marks or bone fractures. Hagari himself stated that “at this stage it is not possible to rule out or confirm that they were killed as a result of suffocation, strangulation, poisoning, or the consequences of an IDF attack, or a Hamas operation.”
Maayan, Sherman’s mother, received a detailed report from the army after the examination of her son’s body, which also included a CT scan. “There are no fractures, no gunshot wounds, no dry blows,” she explained. According to Maayan, the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate told the family on Jan. 19 that “the matter is closed” and the army would not be conducting any further investigations.
Daniel Solomon, a doctor who has treated trauma patients who suffocated from gas or smoke, said that due to the fact that so much time had elapsed between the time of death and the recovery of the bodies, it could prove difficult to identify post-mortem signs of suffocation from carbon monoxide — such as edema in the vocal cords, burns in the airways, or tissue damage.
Katia, Beizer’s mother, told +972 and Local Call that the army informed them that the three men were being held in the same tunnel that Ghandour was hiding in when the army carried out its attack. “The [military] intelligence told us that [their deaths] could have been the result of the bomb that killed Ghandour, from the gasses and the blast, but that they don’t know.
“I demand that they continue the investigation,” Katia went on. “I told them I wouldn’t let them stop. After all, we were constantly told, in meetings with military and government officials, that they suspected there were hostages [being held] near senior Hamas figures. So if you know and suspect that there are hostages around, even if you don’t know who exactly, how can it be that you bombed?”
Maayan said that three weeks after her son was abducted, intelligence officials informed the family that “there are indications that he is alive and that they know where he is.” During the shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual) held after Sherman’s body was recovered in December, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian — the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — told her that he and Nitzan Alon, who is in charge of prisoners of war and missing persons, “knew at any given moment where Ron and Nik were,” and so was surprised to hear about their deaths.
That’s why Maayan accuses the military of killing her son for the sake of killing Ghandour. “Somebody is lying here,” she said. “It is clear to me that my son was sacrificed. I ask myself how they would act if it was Bibi [Netanyahu]’s son there, and not Ron. We underwent months of torture.”
“My only question is my son’s cause of death,” Katia said. “I want to know how it happened and when it happened. We don’t even know the dates. The state sacrificed them not once, but twice: first when they were abducted from their military base, which is supposed to be safe, and I called everyone possible and nobody saved them. And second when they were in captivity, and the army didn’t bring them back alive.”
In response to the allegations raised in this article, the IDF Spokesman stated: “The IDF shares the families’ grief for the difficult loss, and will continue to support them. IDF representatives have given the families all the verified information that the IDF has, and will continue to do so.
“The lives of the abductees are a leading value in considerations of the decision-makers and therefore the IDF does not attack areas where there are indications or estimates that hostages are present. It should be emphasized that the IDF did not have information about the presence of hostages in the tunnel of Hamas’ northern brigade commander at the time of the attack.
“The attack in which the commander of the northern brigade was eliminated was approved in accordance with the relevant operational procedures. It should be emphasized that the scope of the estimated harm to civilians as part of the attack mentioned in your request is completely unfounded. The claims regarding the attacks on kidnappers’ houses are also false.”
This article has been republished with permission from +972 Magazine in conjunction with Local Call.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.