PM says bucking int’l pressure against Gaza op, stresses no hostage deal ‘as of now’
Netanyahu, Gallant vow IDF will track down Hamas operatives in south of Strip, outside enclave; Gantz: War ends only when we can 'guarantee security, bring the boys and girls home'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday said there was heavy international pressure against Israel’s war on Hamas, as he pledged to continue pressing the military campaign in Gaza until the terror group is overthrown and the hostages it seized are returned.
Speaking during a lengthy press conference, Netanyahu also dismissed “a lot of incorrect reports” about imminent agreements to free some or all of the roughly 240 people being held, adding that “as of now there is no deal.” He said that if a deal emerges the Israeli public will be updated.
“We are marching with you, I am marching with you, all of the people of Israel are marching with you,” he said, referring to the five-day march that families of the hostages undertook from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ending Saturday, adding that he invited families of hostages to meet with the war cabinet in the coming week.
The premier was later asked if he had passed up a serious deal on Tuesday for a release of some 50 hostages, and if he was insisting that all be released. Netanyahu responded that “there was no deal on the table” and he could not elaborate further.
“We want to get back all the hostages,” he said. “We’re doing the utmost to bring back the most possible, including in stages, and we are united on this.”
“We obviously want to bring [home] whole families together,” he added later.
As Netanyahu was set to speak, families of hostages held in Gaza and thousands of their supporters demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square in a rally focused in particular on the some 40 children believed held hostage in Gaza.
To coincide with Monday’s World Children’s Day, most of the speakers were relatives of the children being held by Hamas and other terrorist groups since the October 7 massacres.
Many of the families of the hostages headed straight to Tel Aviv after completing a five-day march to Jerusalem earlier in the day, which culminated in a protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
Late Saturday, several hundred people gathered on Jerusalem’s Kaplan Street, near the Knesset, for a silent rally paying homage to the some 1,200 people killed by terrorists last month and praying for the hostages.
The gathering — organized by Shomrim Al Habayit Hameshutaf (Safeguarding our Joint Home), which used to run protests against the government’s planned judicial overhaul — was quiet, without drums and bullhorns.
Eitan Zur, the brother of Amir Zur, a soldier in the Sayeret Matkal unit who was killed on October 7 at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, mourned his brother, a humorous, righteous person who attended the anti-judicial overhaul rallies whenever he had a weekend off.
Despite the pain and sorrow, said Zur, “we need to fix our reality.”
“The reality won’t change if we don’t find a new direction,” he said.
Former Jerusalem deputy mayor Tamir Nir, a Reform rabbi, recited a prayer for the hostages.
Tzivya Guggenheim, a student at Shalem Center, said the Knesset and other government institutions near where the protest took place “have failed in their responsibilities.”
“We’re here to make sure this generation has what’s needed. I promise in the name of my generation that this country will be better.”
‘Insisting on our essential security and diplomatic interests’
At his press conference alongside Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and fellow war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu said Israel has “eliminated thousands of terrorists,” including senior commanders, and destroyed command posts and tunnels. “We’re moving forward with full force,” he said.
While Israel has the support of the US and others for the ongoing war, “there is growing pressure against us, in the US and elsewhere,” he said.
In comments seemingly responding to anger within his coalition and parts of the electorate against Israel allowing two trucks of fuel into the Strip each day despite having vowed not to, Netanyahu listed all the ways Israel has ignored demands from many quarters, including pressure not to launch its ground invasion, not to go into Gaza City, and not to go into Shifa Hospital. Israel was undeterred, he said.
“They also pressed us to agree to a full ceasefire. We refused. And I made clear that we would only agree to a temporary ceasefire and only for the return of our hostages.”
He added: “Together with my colleagues, I rebuff the pressure and make clear to the world: We will continue to fight until victory. Until we destroy Hamas. And until we bring our hostages home.”
“We are insisting on our essential security and diplomatic interests… in the face of heavy opposition. When our enemies and our friends recognize our firm stance, when they hear it in international media interviews, and in discussions with leaders, we obtain the necessary room for maneuver to continue the operation. This cannot be taken for granted.”
Netanyahu said he greatly “appreciates the support of the US” and that it is sending constant shipments of crucial weaponry and defense equipment, while noting bipartisan support for the Jewish state in Congress.
He said Israel’s leadership was in daily contact with the White House, and “I give US media interviews almost every day to persuade the American public of the rightness of our path.”
He also hailed Tuesday’s unprecedentedly large pro-Israel rally in Washington, DC, which organizers said was the largest gathering of Jews in American history.
He said he speaks every day with other international leaders. All this and more, he said, ensures Israel continues to receive the military support it needs from the US, and thwarts international initiatives against Israel that would endanger its ability to keep fighting.
He said that allowing humanitarian aid to Gaza is crucial to continue the war against Hamas, and said without it there would be less international support for Israel’s military campaign. “Even our best friends would be hard-pressed to maintain their support for us in the long-term and that would make it hard for us to complete the war,” he said.
“The IDF and the Shin Bet recommended that the cabinet accept the American request to allow two fuel tankers a day to enter the southern Gaza Strip,” he said, and the cabinet backed this unanimously.
“This is a minimal emergency quantity of fuel — fuel to operate water pumps and sewage pumps, without which there would be an eruption of epidemics that would harm residents of the Strip and IDF soldiers.”
He noted that the IDF always follows “the laws of war. That’s how our army operates, the world’s most moral army.”
He set out three war missions that will be fulfilled: “Complete victory, to destroy Hamas. To return the hostages. And to ensure that after victory, Gaza will never again constitute a threat to Israeli citizens. I will not allow into Gaza any party that supports terrorism, pays terrorists or their families, or educates their children to murder Jews and [to seek] the destruction of Israel,” he vowed, in reference to the Palestinian Authority. “Without that revolution in the civilian governance of Gaza, it’s only a matter of time until Gaza returns to terror, and I won’t agree to that.”
An additional condition, he said: “The IDF will have complete freedom of action in Gaza against any threat. That is the only way to guarantee the demilitarization of Gaza.”
Operation in Gaza to ‘soon’ expand
Speaking after Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant said the IDF was continuing to hit Hamas hard in the Strip and will also operate “soon” in the south of Gaza.
“We are in the second stage of the ground invasion, also operating in the east of the Strip,” he said. “Hamas has been hit hard, it’s losing tunnels, bunkers, posts,” and many of its senior commanders have been killed, Gallant added.
“We are reaching all of the sites sensitive to Hamas and hitting them,” he said.
“With every passing day, there are fewer places for the Hamas terrorists to move around,” he said.
Those hiding out in the south of the Strip, where the IDF has yet to send in ground troops, “will feel this soon,” said Gallant.
The defense minister said he meets with families of hostages every week and that there is no higher priority than to bring the hostages home.
“I think Hamas is playing with the emotions of the families and with the Israeli public,” he said, adding that the war cabinet was united in its determination to bring the hostages home.
He said: “What happened on October 7 is worse than any other phenomenon in the world in recent decades. That’s Hamas. And Hamas only understands force.” Hence the decision to go to war to destroy Hamas and get back the hostages is increasingly proving to be the right decision, he says.
Hamas is solely interested in survival now, he said.
Minister Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, said the IDF operation in Gaza “is widening, and it will end only when we can guarantee security and bring the boys and girls home.”
“It will take as long as it takes. We are determined in this fight,” he said.
Gantz said he met with families of the hostages earlier Saturday, stressing that “everything we are doing is aimed first and foremost at bringing our boys and girls home.”
In an apparent reference to Hamas, Gantz said Israel has “decades if needed to destroy this thing.”
By contrast, “We don’t have decades to bring the people home… So, yes, from my point of view, it is a priority to get the hostages back. But that priority doesn’t override our obligation” to destroy Hamas, “however long it takes.”
“I want to bring back the elderly, and the children. Nobody here wants anything else. Nobody in Israel wants anything else,” said Gantz.
In answer to questions, Netanyahu and Gallant said that all members of Hamas, including those outside of the Gaza Strip, will be tracked down.
Gallant noted that there is “no difference between a terrorist with a Kalashnikov and a terrorist in a three-piece suit,” in what appeared to be a reference to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, who is believed to be based in Qatar.