National Unity head hints Bibas family killed, drawing flak

Back in opposition, Gantz says freeing hostages should take priority over Gaza fighting

Former war cabinet minister accuses Netanyahu of allowing political decisions to influence hostage deal negotiations, says Israel must shift focus to Hezbollah on northern border

MK Benny Gantz attends a plenum session at the Knesset on June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Benny Gantz attends a plenum session at the Knesset on June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel should agree to withdraw the military from the Gaza Strip and cease its war against Hamas for as long as is necessary to secure the release of hostages held there, National Unity party chair Benny Gantz said Thursday.

Gantz, who bolted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition last week over its handling of the war, also appeared to hint in interviews with channels 12, 13 and Kan that an infant and toddler kidnapped on October 7 had been killed in captivity, along with their young parents.

“I want the hostages to return home,” Gantz said when asked by Channel 12 if he Hamas’s demand of a permanent ceasefire was a price he would be willing to pay. “If there is a change in the fighting and our hostages are returned, and we do what needs to be done in the Gaza Strip in a year, or in two years, that’s not an issue.”

“I want the hostages home, I want to have strong security, and then we can continue what needs to be continued.”

The longer that Israel has “waited and waited” for a hostage deal, the more the cost has risen,” Gantz told Channel 13. “Sinwar sits in the tunnels and doesn’t really care about his people, and the pressure on Israel only increases.”

He told Kan “I believe so,” when asked if Israel knows the fate of Shiri and Yarden Bibas and their two small children Ariel and Kfir, who were 4 years old and 9 months old respectively when kidnapped from their home in Kibbutz Nir Oz during Hamas’s murderous rampage.

The public will know their fates “when things are ripe” for it, he said.

The Bibas family — father Yarden, four-year-old Ariel, mother Shiri and baby Kfir — who were abducted by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. (Courtesy)

Following the segment, representatives of the Bibas family criticized Gantz, and Kan, for “irresponsible” statements, which caught the family off guard.

“Tonight we witnessed the irresponsibility of a politician and the media who chose to publish a story without considering the family sitting at home that has to deal with it, without any prior preparation or the ability to stop it,” they said.

“The family is in continuous contact with intelligence parties, and we still wholeheartedly believe that we will hear good news.”

Throughout the interview with Channel 12, the former war cabinet minister stressed that the war in Gaza — which has stretched on for more than eight months following the October 7 massacre carried out by Hamas in southern Israel — should no longer be Israel’s most urgent priority.

Instead, he explained that the government’s and the military’s attention should turn to the hostages, of whom 116 are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza, and to the north, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has launched near-daily attacks on northern Israel since October 8.

“The security situation in the south has already reached a decisive state, there is no place where the IDF wants to operate and cannot operate in the south,” Gantz said. “What we have in the south is a moral, supreme obligation, to return our hostages.”

“Let nobody be confused, a complete victory over three battalions is not the State of Israel’s real problem,” he said, dismissing Netanyahu’s repeated claim that Israel will achieve “total victory” in the Gaza Strip.

A real victory will be unity in Israeli society, even in the face of hard decisions, Gantz said. “The rebuilding of the communities that were destroyed in the north and the south would be a real victory.”

“From a military point of view, efforts should be concentrated to the north,” he said.” Either through an agreement or through escalation if necessary, but we need to get organized.”

The interviews aired as fires blazed across northern Israel as a result of heavy rocket and drone fire from Lebanon throughout Thursday. The Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has stepped up attacks since Wednesday following a strike that killed a senior commander, launching hundreds of rockets and drones at Israel. The attacks, after eight months of slowly increasing hostilities, have brought the sides to the brink of war.

“Nobody wants to see Lebanon burn, not even Hezbollah,” he told Channel 12, “but that’s what will happen if it doesn’t stop what it is doing.”

National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks to Channel 12 in a segment aired on June 13, 2024, as part of a series of interviews following his resignation from the government and the war cabinet. (Screenshot, Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Gantz urged the government to act as needed in order for the citizens of the evacuated communities to return home by September 1, 2024, at the start of the new school year.

“The communities need to return, they need to recover, the education system needs to operate, people need to know what it’s like to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning properly,” he said, acknowledging that the decision — made in part by him — to evacuate northern communities not in the immediate proximity of the Lebanon border was a mistake.

Regarding his decision to withdraw his party from the emergency coalition formed in the immediate aftermath of October 7, Gantz explained that he and fellow National Unity lawmaker Gadi Eisenkot, who served as an observer in the war cabinet, realized that there was nothing else they could do from inside the government and that they could be more helpful to Israel in the opposition.

Only by renewing the trust between the public and the elected officials will Israel be able to forge a new path following the destruction wreaked by Hamas on October 7 and by the year of unprecedented civil discord that preceded it, Gantz asserted.

“Trust in the government was “ground to the bone throughout 2023, coming to a head on October 7,” Gantz said, referring to the government’s contentious judicial overhaul plans and the mass protest movement it sparked. “We entered [the coalition] despite all that, despite knowing that this is a bad government, and because we know that it is a bad government…we did everything we could.”

He said National Unity could continue to back the government on issues pertaining to the war in order to dilute the potential rising influence of hard-right elements in the coalition in the wake of his departure.

“I told Netanyahu and the cabinet what to do, they know what to do,” he said.

But even when he still had a seat at the war cabinet table, the decision-making process was not immune to pressure from ultranationalist entities, Gantz admitted to Channel 12.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/ Pool Photo via AP)

In one instance, he said, Netanyahu had already approved the parameters within which Israel’s delegation could conduct negotiations but reduced their mandate following a demand from Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has been vocally opposed to making any deals with Hamas.

“״Netanyahu is trapped by the political pressure he is under, and therefore he doesn’t dare to do what he knows needs to be done,” Gantz declared.

The Likud party accused Gantz of fabricating the story.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the negotiating team a full mandate to reach a deal five times, but Hamas is the one who refused and demanded an end to the war before all its goals were completed,” the statement read. “Today, everyone knows that Hamas was and is the only obstacle to the release of our hostages.”

The National Unity leader also lambasted Netanyahu’s apparent inability to take responsibility for the failures surrounding October 7, as well as for “what came before it, throughout 2023.”

“Netanyahu, after October 7, cannot in my opinion be the Prime Minister of the State of Israel,” he said simply, asserting to Channel 12 that had he, instead of Netanyahu, been prime minister, Hamas may never have attacked on October 7 at all, as “Sinwar found Israel’s weak point.”

Israel was only weak “because of the so-called ‘fully right-wing’ government,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, including the extremist Otzma Yehudit.

Gantz, who demanded Netanyahu call elections in his resignation speech on June 6, said they should happen, “as soon as possible, three months from today.”

“I will be prime minister,” Gantz declared. “I want to be prime minister because I understand what Israel needs and where it needs to go.”

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