Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told local council chiefs from communities near Gaza on Tuesday that he anticipates the war against Hamas extending into 2025.
According to an unsourced Channel 12 report on the meeting, which was held at the IDF’s southern command headquarters in Beersheba and attended by other security cabinet ministers, Netanyahu told the council chiefs that, according to the current assessment, the war may continue into next year.
He disclosed the assessment in the course of a discussion in which he also reportedly agreed to revise a current Defense Ministry framework that provides financial assistance to Israeli residents who are prepared to return to evacuated communities 4-7 kilometers from the Gaza border areas.
Many of these communities were ravaged by the October 7 Hamas massacre of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the abduction of 240 hostages of all ages. The attacks were carried out amid brutal atrocities that included mutilation, torture, rape, sexual assault and the setting alight of people, corpses, and homes.
The local council chiefs told Netanyahu that most of their residents do not wish to return at this point, because of ongoing rocket fire from Gaza and other security concerns, the TV report said. They called for the process of returning to be delayed or extended until the summer and the start of the new school year, and for the state to continue to fund their stay in temporary accommodation until then.
Netanyahu said he accepted their request, promised that the financial assistance to residents would be applicable then as well, and instructed the relevant officials to draw up the necessary framework, the TV report said.
In public remarks at the start of the meeting, Netanyahu said: “We are determined to rehabilitate the kibbutzim and communities in what is known as the so-called Gaza envelope area, to return the residents to their homes, and to ensure that [the area] thrives and grows far more than it was before the war.”
Earlier this month, The Times of Israel reported that the government was preparing to resettle many of the residents of the communities evacuated from the Gaza border area by September, but that the hardest-hit communities, including Nir Oz and Kfar Aza, may take up to two years to rebuild and rehabilitate.
The government has allocated NIS 1 billion ($248 million) to a dedicated agency to rehabilitate Israel’s southern Gaza border communities.
The three-month war has seen intense battles across Gaza as troops work to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. Israel has vowed to destroy the terror group and to continue fighting until the remaining hostages return.
The Israel Defense Forces previously assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, as Israel also prepares for fighting to escalate further on the Lebanon border, where Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror groups have carried out daily rocket, missile, and drone attacks.
On Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that the “intensive phase” of Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza has ended, and it will soon be over in the Khan Younis area of the Strip’s south as well.
Troops have been carrying out operations at a lower intensity in northern Gaza, after the military said it had defeated all of Hamas’s battalions in the area. The soldiers have been working to locate the remaining Hamas sites and kill or capture the terror group’s remaining operatives there.
The US, which has been pushing Israel to scale back the fighting amid a rising Gaza death toll, welcomed Gallant’s announcement on Tuesday and said the move will allow for an increase of humanitarian aid to Gaza as well as the return of civilians to their homes in the Palestinian enclave.
With the scale-back in fighting, “We are preparing to increase the humanitarian assistance… as well as to help set the conditions for the population to return to north Gaza where the UN hopes to conduct assessment missions over the coming week,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday.
Israel has approved the UN assessment but has rejected efforts to allow evacuated Gazans to return to their homes in the northern Strip, saying that the fighting is still ongoing there and that it will not allow the step unless there is an advancement in efforts to release the hostages.
Some 132 hostages remain in Gaza, not all of them alive after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops.
The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military.
The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 27 hostages– including two whose deaths were announced earlier Tuesday — held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.
According to a separate report Monday, IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi has warned that gains made over the three-plus months of fighting in Gaza could be squandered due to the lack of a plan for postwar management and security of the enclave.
The reported comments by Halevi in recent weeks were reflective of consternation among military analysts and others regarding the lack of preparation for a so-called “day after” in Gaza, as Israel winds down the intensive phase of its military campaign against Hamas, which has ruled the enclave since 2007 and which, though weakened, remains in power.
“We are facing the erosion of gains made thus far in the war because no strategy has been put together for the day after,” Channel 13 news cited Halevi as saying in private conversations with Netanyahu, Gallant, and others.
Halevi also warned that the IDF “may need to go back and operate in areas where we have already concluded the fighting,” according to the channel.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.