Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday the IDF would continue its military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip for as long as needed and with as much force as necessary, as IDF ground forces neared the end of their tunnel demolition operation and began a partial pullout from the Hamas-run territory.
“From the beginning, we promised to return the quiet to Israel’s citizens and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved. We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu would not comment extensively on the movement of some troops out of Gaza Saturday, but stressed that the redeployment did not indicate an end to Operation Protective Edge and that the IDF would continue to operate “only on the basis of security considerations.”
The prime minister said that once the IDF had finished dealing with the terror tunnels, it would deploy “according to Israel’s security needs.”
“I can’t tell you how it’s going to develop,” he said. “We are keeping all options for action open.”
According to military sources, by Saturday only a few tunnels remained to be demolished in the Palestinian territory. On Saturday evening an unspecified number of IDF troops pulled back from their positions in the Gaza Strip and took up posts just inside the border with Israel. According to earlier reports, the troops were being pulled out of Khan Yunis, in the south, and Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israeli strikes on Hamas targets were ongoing, with Ya’alon saying Israel had caused significant damage to the organization.
“Let there be no mistake, Hamas is paying a very heavy price,” he said. “The tally is clearly against Hamas and it will worsen as the days wear on.”
Netanyahu added that Israel had a high level of support from both American and European officials and said this was “an important achievement for Israel.”
Asked about reports that he had a strained conversation with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro Saturday morning, in which he allegedly told the US not to “second guess” him on how to deal with Hamas, Netanyahu said that “these reports that are not only of my conversation with Ambassador Shapiro but also with the President…are full of incorrections, full of distortions and are wrong both in tone and in substance.” He called the level of backing from Washington “terrific.”
Netanyahu said that while Israel had the support of “many important world leaders,” there were others more inclined to tolerate terrorism. “Today it threatens Israel. Tomorrow it will threaten you,” he warned.
The premier added that the campaign has given Israel the opportunity to create “special ties” with other Middle Eastern states which support the war on Hamas, though he would not say which states.
“When the fighting stops, this will open up new possibilities for all of us,” he said.
The prime minister thanked the US for recognizing the need to disarm Hamas. He urged the international community to link the rehabilitation of Gaza to its demilitarization.
Netanyahu said there were some states — “like Qatar” — which had pressed US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire but had failed to exert pressure on Hamas to live up to its obligations once a truce was achieved.
The prime minister said he sympathized with the family of 2nd-Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was kidnapped in Rafah on Friday, and that he would speak with the family later in the evening. Israel “will make every effort to return its missing boys home,” he said.
The family had earlier held a press conference in which they expressed outrage at the perceived pullout of troops while their son remained missing.
Netanyahu said Israel had no quarrel with Gaza civilians, and mourns any harm that comes to them.
“Hamas is interested in the suffering of the people of Gaza, out of the perception that the world will blame us,” he said. But, he added, “there is only one place for decent civilized people to stand, and that is beside Israel.”
A Hamas source quoted by Channel 2 said Saturday that “we won’t necessarily cease fire” if Israel does. Hamas maintained that the damage to its infrastructure was not as bad as Israel claimed. Hamas officials said they could rebuild the tunnels, still had rocket capabilities, and that their command structure and leaders remained unharmed.
“The damage is far less than Israel’s prime minister says,” the TV report quoted a Hamas source saying.
Reporting on the security cabinet decision overnight, Channel 2 said before Netanyahu’s press conference that the prime minister and his colleagues were now firmly set on a unilateral end to the conflict in the next few days. Israel was adamant that Hamas cannot be trusted in any ceasefire deal, and that it had to be deterred. The report stated that the US understands this, since it also recognized that the Hamas attack on Israeli troops in Rafah on Friday morning was a “spit in the eye” of the US and other mediators.
From an Israeli perspective, the cabinet was said to believe, the advantage is that it can leave on its own terms, rather than getting entangled in negotiations with Hamas over new border arrangements for Gaza. Hamas has said it will only halt fire if Israel and Egypt lift their seven-year-old border blockade of the territory.
However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future.
AFP, AP and Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.