Israel will likely maintain “security responsibility” over the Gaza Strip for some time after its war against Hamas ends, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview aired Monday night.
How Israel intends to handle Gaza’s postwar future remains an open and burning question as Israeli forces push deeper into the enclave amid a campaign to eliminate the Hamas terror group, which has ruled the Strip for over 15 years.
“I think Israel will for an indefinite period have security responsibility,” Netanyahu told ABC News. “We’ve seen what happens when we don’t have that… security responsibility, what we have is the eruption of Hamas terror on a scale that we couldn’t imagine.”
The interview also saw Netanyahu move toward admitting that he bore some measure of responsibility for the defense fiasco that allowed Hamas to commit its atrocities on October 7. He was asked, “Do you believe that you should take any responsibility?” And he replied: “Of course. It’s not a question,” adding that there would be time after the war “to allocate” that responsibility.
Israel declared war on Hamas after some 3,000 terrorists breached the Gaza border on October 7 and slaughtered around 1,400 people — mainly civilians — as they rampaged through communities in southern Israel. They also abducted over 240 people to the Strip, including at least 30 children.
Netanyahu did not offer details on what Israeli security oversight in Gaza would entail following the war, which is intended to eliminate Hamas and remove the terror threat hanging over southern Israel. Israel has insisted that it does not intend to reoccupy the enclave, which it unilaterally withdrew from in 2005, but Netanyahu’s comment, which confirmed similar statements offered by Israeli officials in recent weeks on condition of anonymity, could point to plans for what may amount to an extended military occupation of the Strip, home to over 2 million Palestinians.
The Biden administration has voiced its opposition to an Israeli reoccupation, while warning Jerusalem that it is more likely to find itself bogged down in Gaza if it doesn’t start drawing up a plan for who will govern the enclave once Hamas is removed from power.
Some in Israel have said the only viable power to replace Hamas would be the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, while others have expressed doubt the hugely unpopular PA — which controlled the Strip before Hamas violently ousted it in 2007 — is stable enough or reliable enough to take control.
The prime minister’s comments followed statements by other Israeli officials who have said Israel will need to maintain a military presence inside Gaza as a buffer to protect Israeli civilians.
EXCLUSIVE: @DavidMuir interviews Israeli PM Netanyahu, pressing him on the Biden administration’s calls for a humanitarian pause in Gaza as the death toll climbs; if he bears responsibility for intelligence failures on Oct. 7; and more. https://t.co/zjSKIi5FJF pic.twitter.com/LydTy5XtZf
— World News Tonight (@ABCWorldNews) November 7, 2023
Since Israel withdrew its military and evacuated its settlements in Gaza nearly two decades ago, it has faced frequent bouts of rocket attacks from the Strip as well as the threat of offensive attack tunnels dug under the border. The rocket attacks, which began before the 2005 disengagement but have expanded significantly since, have sparked a number of extended military engagements against Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip, a cycle many are eager to break. During that time, the IDF said it considered Hamas responsible for any security breaches in the Strip.
Monday saw Israeli forces push further into the Strip and reportedly near the enclave’s main Shifa Hospital — which Jerusalem says is located above Hamas’s command center — as they continued to target Hamas’s underground tunnel network and military capabilities.
The ABC interview was Netanyahu’s first with American media since the war started. The prime minister had previously gone on a US media blitz across various American networks in order to try and calm backlash over his government’s now-frozen judicial overhaul effort, but has blackballed mainstream Israeli media since taking office in December, a strategy which has largely shielded him from having to answer critics.
During the interview, Netanyahu was pressed repeatedly on whether he bore blame over the failure to see the massive Hamas attack coming and the slow military response on that day — which he has so far been reluctant to acknowledge.
“I’ve said that there are going to be very tough questions that are going to be asked, and I’m going to be among the first to answer them,” he said.
Pressed again on whether he should take any responsibility, Netanyahu answered: “Of course. That’s not a question. It’s going to be resolved after the war. I think there’ll be time to allocate that.”
Netanyahu has been heavily criticized in Israel for not acknowledging responsibility in the month since the war began, saying only that the matter will be examined after the fighting subsides, while all other top officials — the defense minister, the IDF chief, the head of the Shin Bet, and other top officers in charge of intelligence and operation matters — have said clearly they were personally accountable.
The premier hinted for the first time at some flexibility on calls for humanitarian pauses, amid US pressure for short halts in the fighting to allow aid to move around the Strip.
“As far as practical, little pauses — an hour here, an hour there — we’ve had them before. We’ll check the circumstances in order to enable humanitarian goods to come in or our hostages, individual hostages to leave,” Netanyahu added.
According to reports, Netanyahu had previously only agreed to pauses in the fighting for hostages to be released. Hamas has released four hostages, while a fifth was rescued by Israeli forces inside the Strip.
Netanyahu indicated that he could agree to a ceasefire if Hamas releases all of the roughly 240 hostages being held in Gaza. “There would be a ceasefire for that purpose, and we’re waiting for that to happen,” he said.
The premier said Israel has some intelligence regarding where the hostages are being held, but declined to elaborate.
Netanyahu dismissed suggestions there was any daylight between him and US President Joe Biden regarding the war, saying he agreed with the US call for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and was coordinating with Washington on the issue.
Still, the prime minister stressed that he wouldn’t give Hamas the opportunity to endanger IDF soldiers as a result of relief to the Strip.
He said Israel would do what it could to limit civilian casualties while recognizing that it will not always succeed because of the terror group’s use of the population as human shields.
Netanyahu spoke by phone with Biden on Monday, with a White House spokesperson saying the two discussed the potential for humanitarian pauses in war.
The US believes such pauses would help enable civilians to reach safer locations in Gaza, ensure humanitarian aid is reaching civilians in need, and enable potential hostage releases, said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“We consider ourselves at the beginning of this conversation, not at the end of it, so you can expect that we’re going to continue to advocate for temporary localized pauses,” the NSC spokesperson added, while clarifying that the US still does not support a more permanent ceasefire because such a move would benefit Hamas.
Gaza health authorities, controlled by Hamas, said Monday that more than 10,000 people, including many women and children, have been killed in the fighting. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen killed in Israel and in Gaza, and those killed by the hundreds of rockets fired by terror groups that have fallen short inside the Strip.
IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Monday ground forces were “deepening the pressure on Gaza City” after they managed to isolate and surround the northern part of the Strip.
He said the IDF killed several Hamas field commanders during overnight airstrikes and operations, which “significantly harms Hamas’s ability to carry out counterattacks.”
On Hamas’s tunnel network, Hagari said combat engineering forces were demolishing every tunnel they come across using “different and diverse devices.”
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.