Hamas suffered a near-fatal military and diplomatic blow during Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, but he acknowledged that he could not guarantee sustained quiet for Israel — the key goal of the operation. He said the Islamist group had achieved none of its stated objectives after 50 days of fighting, assessed it would be wary of initiating another round of violence, and indicated that planned indirect negotiations on a long-term arrangement next month might go nowhere.
Netanyahu warned that if Hamas were to resume attacks against Israel in any form, the IDF would strike back “sevenfold.”
“What we have is a great military achievement and a great diplomatic achievement,” Netanyahu said in a press conference in Jerusalem, alongside Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. “Hamas was badly beaten and received none of the conditions it had demanded in return for a ceasefire. [Hamas] demanded a seaport and did not get one; an airport – not accepted; a release of Shalit deal prisoners — not accepted. [Hamas] demanded to have a Qatari brokered deal — not accepted; Turkish mediation – not accepted.”
He stated that Israel, as opposed to Hamas, had received comprehensive legitimacy from the international community to carry out attacks against terror targets in the Palestinian enclave. The IDF, he specified, destroyed “terror tunnels” and rocket launchers, killed some 1,000 fighters, and targeted many command-and-control centers in the Gaza Strip.
“It is too early to determine whether we achieved our goal of a prolonged calm, but the damage to Hamas increases the chances that such a goal has been reached,” he said. “Hamas was surprised by the unity of Israel’s citizens; we showed that we will not tolerate a drizzle [of rockets] on any part of the State of Israel.”
“I said that attrition would be met with a pounding,” Netanyahu recalled, and thus, when Hamas broke the previous truce last Tuesday, “the terror towers fell and Hamas understood that the price was very high.” Netanyahu was referring to Israel’s bombing of high-rises in Gaza in the final days of the operation, where Hamas was said to have command centers.
Asked why Israel had not succeed in completely rooting out Hamas, Netanyahu stated that fighting a terror organization required patience and resolve, and presented serious difficulties for democratic states in particular. The US had failed to extinguish Al-Qaida, he noted.
He added that toppling Hamas was a goal that could only be achieved if the group was completely disarmed, under international supervision.
Addressing rumors that much to the cabinet’s discontent, the current truce was accepted without a vote by ministers, Netanyahu said the cabinet backed the Egyptian ceasefire proposal from the get-go. Later, the cabinet voted to authorize the prime minister and defense minister to accept ceasefires on their own, without a cabinet vote, he added.
Netanyahu said that if a long-term arrangement were to be presented to Israel, the cabinet would be informed of it. However, the prime minister cast doubt on such an arrangement ever materializing.
“It’s not clear there will be [a long-term negotiated deal],” he said. “[But] the talks will begin in a month.”
The fact is, he reiterated, “Hamas abandoned all its demands” and signed an open-ended ceasefire “without preconditions.”
Pressed by reporters over the possibility of resuming peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu said the international community has taken note of the fact that the Arab world didn’t rally behind Hamas during the Gaza campaign, implying that regional players cared far more about the advancement of radical Islamist movements across the Middle East than about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is a change; we didn’t see this in the past,” he said, adding that regional cooperation to combat the Islamic State would pave the way for “new opportunities” in the political arena.
Netanyahu said Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas would have to choose sides in the battle against Islamist extremists, and decide whether it was poised to work with Israel or against it.
“We hope he will continue to seek peace with Israel,” he said. “We will always seek peace partners to resolve the conflict.”
The prime minster added that Israel would back the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to return to a governing position in the Gaza Strip.
“We would be happy if Abbas’s forces would enter Gaza,” he concluded.
Ya’alon, the defense minister, asserted that the Israeli offensive had set Hamas back many years, and urged Israelis not to be fooled by its claims to victory.
“They too know they were dealt a serious blow,” he said.
Ya’alon emphasized that Israeli security forces would learn from their mistakes and investigate their actions in order to prepare for any future threat.
He vowed to bring the remains of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose bodies are both believed to be held by Hamas operatives in the Strip, back to Israel for burial.
“We will do everything to return the bodies of the soldiers,” he said.
Chief of Staff Gantz echoed Ya’alon’s statements, assuring the families of Shaul and Goldin that the army was determined to retrieve the soldiers’ remains.
During the past weeks, Gantz continued, Israeli air, ground, and naval forces collaborated in a “very complex” military operation and deployed force “that had been built up over years.”
He said the army was attuned to the struggles of Israeli civilians in the south during the operation, adding that the defense establishment would continue to do everything in its power in order to ensure citizens remain secure in their communities.
Israel and Hamas agreed Tuesday to an open-ended ceasefire after seven weeks of fighting — an uneasy deal that halts the deadliest war the sides have fought in years, but puts off the most difficult issues.
In the end, both sides settled for an ambiguous interim agreement in exchange for a period of calm. Hamas, though badly battered, remains in control of Gaza with part of its military arsenal intact. Israel and Egypt will continue to control access to blockaded Gaza, despite Hamas’s long-running demand that the border closures imposed after it seized power in 2007 be lifted.
Hamas declared victory, even though it had little to show for a war that killed 2,143 Palestinians, wounded more than 11,000 and left some 100,000 homeless. About three-fourths of those killed in Israeli air strikes have been civilians, according to the UN and Palestinian officials. Israel disputes the figures, says roughly half of the dead were Hamas gunmen and accuses the Islamist group of using civilians as human shields. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and six civilians were killed, including two men killed at Nirim by Palestinian mortar fire shortly before the ceasefire was announced.
Marissa Newman and AP contributed to this report