As sirens sounded in central Israel on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the second stage of the campaign to destroy Hamas had begun with an expanding ground offensive into the Gaza Strip.
Projecting an image of unity alongside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and fellow war cabinet minister Benny Gantz at a Tel Aviv press conference, Netanyahu announced: “This is the second stage of the war whose goals are clear — to destroy Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and to bring the hostages home.”
He added that the decision to begin ground operations had been made unanimously, both by the war cabinet and the security cabinet.
“Broadening the ground offensive does not clash in any way with our ability to return the hostages,” he argued.
He was also asked about a potential “all for all” deal that would see all Hamas-held hostages freed and all Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails released, a notion Hamas leaders have increasingly called for.
“We are discussing the issue,” he said, without going into details, and added that he cannot share intelligence and considerations that the cabinet is debating. Discussing the terms of a potential deal publicly “will not help to realize” one, he added.
Ground forces, including infantry, combat engineering forces and tanks, entered Gaza on Friday night and remained there on Saturday, operating deeper inside the Hamas-run territory than previous limited incursions.
“Our commanders and soldiers fighting in enemy territory know that the nation and the national leadership stand behind them,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu said troops that he has met in the field are determined to make Hamas pay for its actions on October 7.
“They are determined to eradicate this evil from the world, for our existence and, I add — for all of humanity.”
Netanyahu continued: “We always said, ‘Never Again’. Never Again’ is now.”
The prime called the abduction of the hostages — including civilians of all ages — “a crime against humanity.”
And he denounced those who “dare to accuse our soldiers of war crimes” as hypocrites and liars.
“The IDF is the most moral army in the world; the IDF does everything to avoid harm to non-combatants,” he said, again calling on residents of northern Gaza to head to the southern Gaza Strip, as Israel has repeatedly done in recent weeks.
Netanyahu accused Hamas of war crimes, saying it “uses citizens as human shields,” uses hospitals as terror headquarters and takes fuel meant for hospitals to supply its war.
On Saturday, the army said it would start allowing significantly more humanitarian aid to enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt.
The IDF hopes that the additional food, water and medical supplies will encourage more Palestinians to leave the northern part of the Gaza Strip for the south.
Israel has repeatedly warned that it is heavily targeting Gaza City and other areas in northern Gaza, where Hamas is believed to have its main bases of operations and extensive underground installations, many of them located under the city. The IDF says it will not allow fuel into the Gaza Strip, as it says it is used by Hamas to manage the fighting against Israel.
Netanyahu said the initial stage of the war — launched after Hamas terrorists burst through the border fence and slaughtered 1,400 Israelis, over a thousand of them civilians, on October 7 — had been a massive air campaign “to allow our ground forces to go in as safely as possible.”
“We eliminated countless murderers, including mass murderers. We destroyed countless headquarters and terrorist infrastructure. We are only at the beginning,” he said.
Netanyahu added that the war will be “long and hard, and we are ready. It is our second War of Independence. We will fight to defend the homeland. We will fight and we will not withdraw.”
“Israel is fighting not only its war, but humanity’s war against the barbarians,” he said.
“Our allies in the Western world, and our partners in the Arab world, know that if we do not win, they are next in line in the campaign of conquest and murder from the axis of evil,” he says.
He characterized the war as one of “light over darkness, life over death. This is the mission of our lives and my life.”
Taking his first questions from reporters since the Hamas massacres, Netanyahu refused to directly answer whether he bears responsibility for the Palestinian terror group’s deadly onslaught.
“After the war everyone will have to give answers, myself included,” he said, repeating comments he made earlier in the week.
But, he stressed, “There was an awful debacle.”
He also refused to commit to setting up a state commission of inquiry — the most powerful and consequential investigative panel — to investigate the failings that enabled the Hamas atrocities. “There will not be a stone left unturned,” he said, adding that his focus right now was only on winning and “saving the state.”
Netanyahu was also asked whether his government’s judicial overhaul efforts had distracted attention from security challenges, and said the legislative proposals to weaken the courts are “no longer on the agenda,” and that disagreements had been resolved in the face of war.
I cannot tell you for certain that in this specific operation, at this particular moment, [Iran] was involved in the micro-planning.
Responding to a question about Iran’s involvement in the October 7 attacks, Netanyahu said: “Iran supports Hamas… provides over 90% of Hamas’s budget. It finances, it organizes, it directs, it guides.
“I cannot tell you for certain that in this specific operation, at this particular moment, they were involved in the micro-planning.”
But, he added, there was no Hamas without Iran, and no Hezbollah either. “That’s the axis of evil, against the free world and the moderates in the Arab world.”
Shaking the ground in Gaza
Speaking after Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that not a moment goes by when he is not thinking about the hostages, and that Israel is doing everything it can to bring them back. “It is not a secondary mission,” he said.
Gallant argued that the harder Israel hits Hamas, the greater the chances Hamas will agree to release hostages, something Netanyahu and Gantz also asserted.
“Over the last day, we advanced to a new stage” in the war, Gallant said. “The strength of the fire shook the ground in Gaza, and it’s different than anything Hamas has experienced since its creation.
“IDF forces are maneuvering in the relevant places, and are striking Hamas arrays right now, above ground and underground.”
“Hamas is suffering shocks it has never suffered,” he said.
Gallant said Israeli forces in Gaza are receiving all the intelligence and supportive fire they need, adding that the operation is precise, lethal and extremely powerful.
He added he “has full faith” in the IDF chief of staff, the heads of Shin Bet and Mossad, and the soldiers in the field.
“It will not be a short war. It will be a long war,” he said.
“It is us or them.”
No time limit
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, took the microphone last, saying that “there is no diplomatic time limit, only an operational clock.”
Past IDF operations have come to a close as world pressure on Israel, including from allies, increased.
“We will do what is right for us,” he pledged, calling on the world to keep up the pressure on Hamas.
“This is total evil against total justice. And justice will win,” he said.
Gantz echoed Netanyahu’s prior comment that is Israel is fighting a second war of independence, saying the country will fight “where it must, and when it must.”
“We will end up not only stronger, but also more united.”
Gantz said that the war would be a multi-stage effort with significant sacrifices, and that it would take a long time to win on the battlefield and to rehabilitate the south.
Responding to a final question from the press, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the internal relations within the war cabinet are fine. “The prime minister, Minister Gantz, the ministers in the security cabinet, the war cabinet, are conducting discussions that are to the point, good and professional interpersonal relations, and in the end, we are united behind one goal, to bring the victory.”
Gazan terrorists have launched thousands of rockets at Israel since October 7, killing and wounding dozens, and sending hundreds of thousands running for shelter, and the education of hundreds of thousands of children has been disrupted as schools remain shut or operate in a limited format.
The IDF has been preparing for a full-scale incursion aimed at rooting out the Gaza-ruling terror group since the October 7 onslaught in southern Israel.
It has pounded the Strip on an unprecedented scale in order to eliminate potential threats to ground troops once the order finally comes. The airstrikes have flattened entire neighborhoods, causing a level of destruction unseen in the last four wars between Israel and Hamas.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says the Israeli strikes have killed over 7,000 people, many of them children. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include Hamas’s own members and the victims of what Israel says are hundreds of errant Palestinian rockets that have landed in the Strip since the war began. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.