Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel was pursuing a policy of deterring the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers from launching attacks but did not rule out a further escalation, including “conquering” the Palestinian enclave.
Netanyahu gave a briefing to some 70 foreign diplomats at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, where he filled them in on the situation after over a week of fighting that has seen Gaza terror groups rain rockets down on Israel, which has responded with pounding airstrikes on Gaza.
There is increasing international pressure for the two sides to agree, via mediators, on a ceasefire.
Speaking of Gaza’s rulers, the Hamas terror group, which has led the rocket attacks, Netanyahu said, “You can either conquer them — and that’s always an open possibility — or you can deter them.”
“We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence, but I have to say, we are not ruling out anything,” the prime minister said.
Asked how much longer the operation will go on, Netanyahu said he could not give an exact timeframe for when it would end.
“We aren’t standing with a stopwatch. We are concerned with the objectives of the operation,” Netanyahu said.
“Previous operations lasted a long time, so it is not possible to set a timeframe,” he said in the closed-door session.
Since the violence erupted last Monday, Israel has streamed military forces and assets to the Gaza border area, including tanks, artillery, and infantry units.
Among those who attended the briefing were diplomats from the US, the European Union, Russia, China, India, Germany, Austria, Australia, Japan, the UK, Brazil, Canada, and Italy.
The prime minister accused the Palestinians of provoking the current round of fighting, saying Israel hoped to restore quiet “quickly” and was doing everything it could to avoid civilian casualties. He screened a video clip that showed an airstrike being called off at the last minute because there were children in the area.
Hamas, he said, “targets civilians while hiding behind civilians using them as human shields. This is the problem that we face — because Hamas is embedded deeply in civilian areas, because it uses civilian human shields. Democracies have a choice. They can say there is nothing we can do. We will absorb attacks against our cities. We can do that or we can level the cities. In World War II, when western cities, specifically London and some British cities, were targeted this way by thousands of rockets, their response was to level cities.”
Added Netanyahu: “I admire Winston Churchill. I think he was one of the greatest leaders in modern history. I don’t criticize him for anything. I think he did the right thing under those circumstances. But this is not our response to the firing of thousands of rockets on our cities. We do something different. We try to target those who target us with great precision.
“That is not a surgical operation as it is. Even in a surgical room in a hospital, you don’t have the ability to prevent collateral damage around an infected tissue. Even then you can’t. Certainly in a military operation you cannot.”
Nonetheless, he added, “There is no army in the world that does more than the Israeli army, in the Israeli security services, in Israeli intelligence to prevent collateral damage. To have Israel criticized for that is absurd. Not only is absurd and unjust and untrue, it does enormous damage to democracies that are fighting this kind of evil. It says you cannot protect yourself.
“Instead of having the perpetrators who commit double war crimes, who are hiding behind civilians and firing on civilians, not having them criticized but having you criticized is the height of hypocrisy and stupidity. What that does is in fact encourage the terrorists. It gives support, it gives encouragement to the terrorists and that is something that is bad for each one of us. I’m not shy about saying it openly, I think you should support Israel strongly because this is not merely a question of Israel’s security; it’s a question of our common security and our common interests in the Middle East,” he said.
During the briefing, the PMO said later, “Netanyahu presented the ambassadors with documentation of IDF attacks in the Gaza Strip against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the location of stockpiles of missiles, rockets, terrorist buildings, command centers and many terrorist infrastructures. Also presented were videos of firing at citizens of the State of Israel and misfiring by the terrorist organizations, which endangers the residents of the Gaza Strip. Israeli ambassadors around the world also participated in the briefing via Zoom.”
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also spoke at the briefing.
He said that Israel does not see the Palestinian people as an enemy and that it differentiates between the civilian population and Hamas members whom it sees as terrorists. He noted that Israel allowed humanitarian aid into Gaza during the fighting but Hamas fired at the border crossing where the shipment was entering Gaza, wounding a soldier involved in the transfer of the aid and preventing delivery.
Ashkenazi also warned that claims brought by the Palestinians against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague prevent the building of trust between the two sides that would help advance regional development.
Israel is assessing whether conditions are right to halt the military campaign, according to an Israeli military source quoted by the Kan public broadcaster.
“We are looking at when is the right moment for a ceasefire,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
The source added that Israel is evaluating whether its objective of degrading the capabilities of Gaza’s Hamas rulers has been achieved and “whether Hamas understands the message” that its rocket barrages toward Israel cannot recur.
Hamas and other Gaza terror groups have launched nearly 3,700 rockets at Israel since May 10, at times forcing people living by Gaza into bomb shelters around the clock.
Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured over the past ten days.
As the sides entered their 10th day of fighting on Wednesday, Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry updated the death toll in the Strip to 217, including more than 63 minors. It was not immediately clear if the ministry tally included all of those killed or if there were Hamas operatives not included in the count.
According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night.