Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday the IDF has been reaching deeper into Gaza than Hamas ever imagined, and warned Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group that it would be making the “greatest mistake of its life” if it opens a new full-on war front.
His defense minister, Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, said the IDF was now operating “in the heart” of Gaza City and “tightening the noose” around Hamas there.
Speaking from the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said he was addressing the nation in order to update Israelis on the war.
His remarks came a month after the Hamas terror group launched a surprise onslaught, killing some 1,400 people and injuring thousands — mostly civilians — and taking at least 240 men, women and children back to Gaza as hostages. Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and remove it from power in the Strip but has also had to contend with rocket fire from Lebanon and deadly attacks along its border with that country. A barrage of rockets was fired from across the northern border on Tuesday.
All three members of the war cabinet established to oversee the military campaign made separate statements during the evening, with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant ruling out a ceasefire until the hostages are returned home.
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, on Tuesday confirmed to reporters that during a phone call with Netanyahu a day earlier, he asked Israel to “pause” the fighting in Gaza against Hamas. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to him today. I did ask him for a pause in the past, yesterday,” said Biden. “Still waiting to hear from him.”
“In the south, the war is moving forward with force that Hamas has never seen,” Netanyahu said. “Gaza City is surrounded. We are operating within it, we are deepening the pressure on Hamas every hour, every day.”
He said that thousands of terrorists have been eliminated, both aboveground and in a vast network of tunnels, including many of those who planned and carried out the slaughter of October 7.
Netanyahu also said the ground operation had destroyed “countless” Hamas command centers, positions and tunnels that are believed to run for hundreds of kilometers under Gaza and are used by Hamas to move forces, store weapons, and launch attacks on Israeli forces.
“Hamas is discovering that we are reaching places they thought we would never reach,” he said.
Netanyahu noted that Israel Defense Forces soldiers are learning lessons inside the Strip that they are passing on to troops training inside Israel ahead of their entry into Gaza. He also praised the troops’ faith and determination to defend the country.
In the north, Netanyahu said, the IDF is both defending and attacking. He said that Israel will not accept Hezbollah or Hamas in Lebanon “harming our communities and our citizens.”
“We will respond with heavy fire to any of their attacks against us,” he promised.
If Hezbollah enters the war, Netanyahu said — then repeated — “it will be making the greatest mistake of its life.”
Regarding the hostages held in Gaza, Netanyahu said he spoke with the president of the Red Cross and demanded that it work to secure their immediate release, “as required by international law.” He also demanded that the Red Cross visit all the hostages and establish their well-being, again as international law requires.
“There will not be a ceasefire without the return of our kidnapped,” Netanyahu stressed, delivering that declaration “to our enemies and our friends alike.” He also said no fuel would be allowed into the Strip before the hostages were freed. He added that the ground operation is a vital part of the effort to get the hostages home.
Turning to the diplomatic front, Netanyahu said Israel is working to give the IDF diplomatic room to maneuver. He said he has been telling foreign leaders that if Israel does not win, their countries could be attacked by Hamas-inspired terrorism next. But Israel will win, he promised.
Jerusalem is facing diplomatic pressure to allow humanitarian pauses in the fighting, including from Washington, which has steadfastly backed Israel’s right to defend itself following the Hamas assault.
Netanyahu noted that he speaks with US President Joe Biden regularly, and appreciates the support from the White House and from the American people.
He vowed that Israel “will destroy Hamas’s military and governance capabilities… Gaza will no longer constitute a threat to Israel.”
Netanyahu again called on the Gazan population to move south — “you are already doing it, complete it, because we will not stop,” he said.
The Israeli military campaign is mostly focused on the northern Gaza Strip, where Hamas has key assets. Israel is urging Gazans to head to the south of the enclave and thousands did Tuesday, many of them waving white flags, passing through an evacuation corridor set up by the IDF. They joined an estimated 800,000 who have already migrated.
Netanyahu also promised that his government will open its pockets to rehabilitate devastated southern communities, no matter the cost.
“We will fight together, and with God’s help, we will win together,” concluded Netanyahu.
Earlier, speaking with ground forces troops and commanders at the Tze’elim base, Netanyahu told soldiers that they are “saving the state.”
The ongoing IDF operation in Gaza, he said, “is an incredible success. I’m telling you, the Americans were here. They came and explained what happened at Fallujah… They are astounded by our achievements… Of course, there are painful losses, but overall the success is phenomenal.”
US military advisers are in Israel to offer their help, which includes experiences gained in Iraq, and in particular the town of Fallujah where the US fought major battles against insurgents in 2004. Since the start of the ground operation, 30 IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.
Defense Minister Gallant, speaking earlier in the day, called the Gaza Strip “the biggest terror base mankind has ever built,” and also rejected any humanitarian pause before Palestinian terror groups release the more than 240 hostages they are holding.
In a televised press statement, Gallant said IDF ground forces are deployed “in the heart” of Gaza City. They have stormed terror strongholds in Gaza “from all directions, in perfect coordination with maritime and aerial forces,” and are “tightening the noose” around Hamas in the city.
“We will press on until victory and until the hostages are returned home,” he said.
Gallant said Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar “is hiding in his bunker and is without contact with his associates,” vowing again to eliminate him.
“Today we saw thousands of Gazans heading south [in the so-called humanitarian corridor],” he said. He urged all Gaza City residents to move down to safer areas in the south “so that you won’t be harmed… We will destroy Hamas; we have no interest in harming civilians.”
Regarding growing international demands for humanitarian pauses, Gallant said “humanitarian pauses, to me, means first and foremost the [return of the] captives held by the savages. There will be no humanitarian pauses without [the return of] the hostages.”
War cabinet minister Benny Gantz called the conflict a “multi-front war,” marking the government’s strongest description yet of the expansion of the combat to other arenas.
“The focus is Gaza, but we are fighting on defense and on offense both in the north and elsewhere,” the minister said, in an address from the Kirya base.
More than 20 rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel Tuesday, as US diplomats continued to try to remove Hezbollah from the spiraling fight.
Within Gaza, Gantz said that “this war is unlike anything we have experienced in the past,” pointing in particular to how deeply embedded Hamas is within civilian populations.
“We are required to fight deep in the field against an enemy that is turning hospitals and schools into war rooms and weapons depots,” he said, 11 days into Israel’s Gaza ground operation.
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields and as troops have moved further into Gaza they have uncovered weapons, including rocket launchers, situated within civilian sites.
The IDF said Tuesday it uncovered more tunnels in the northern Gaza Strip, near a Ferris wheel and a university. Both tunnels were later destroyed.
In the same area as the university, a weapons depot was found. The IDF says troops recovered chemical substances, assault rifles, RPGs, mines and other equipment.
Troops also came under fire from gunmen inside a mosque. An airstrike was called to take out the Hamas operatives as they tried to flee into a tunnel.
In a separate incident, the IDF said Hamas launched anti-tank guided missiles at troops from several locations, including adjacent to hospitals. It said a helicopter provided suppressing fire to extract the troops.
Troops also killed several Hamas operatives and found rocket launchers and other weapons inside a school. The IDF said the school was used by Hamas as a base for mortar and rocket fire on Israel.
Only one of the more than 240 hostages held by Hamas has been freed by Israeli forces, and Gantz said that Israel will make any political or military move necessary to release the rest.
“I promise that we will do everything to bring them home – by force and by political action. We will fight those who need it, and we will talk to anyone we can,” he said, stopping short of advocating for a full Palestinian security prisoner swap, as has been floated by some.
“We will not give up the chance to bring anyone back,” Gantz continued.
The families of Hamas-held hostages have held several protests, attacking the government for not doing enough to free their loved ones.
In his daily briefing Tuesday evening, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said there will be no ceasefire as the military pushes forward with its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
“Hamas terrorists tell themselves that there will be a ceasefire. There won’t be one. We are moving forward,” he said.
Hagari said the IDF has struck more than 14,000 targets in the Gaza Strip, destroyed more than 100 tunnel entrances, and captured 4,000 weapons — including rockets — hidden in civilian infrastructure.
Also Tuesday, a US and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Israel opposes the US push for humanitarian pauses in Gaza that aren’t preceded by Hamas agreeing to release the hostages from the Strip.
While diplomatic efforts to free the hostages are ongoing, the US doesn’t want humanitarian pauses to be conditioned on the captives’ release, the officials said.
The US official clarified that Washington and its allies were also pursuing options that would see hostages released in exchange for humanitarian pauses but said that those “temporary and localized pauses” should be accepted by Israel, even if there was no immediate progress in the hostage talks.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel appeared to confirm this sequential approach, saying during a briefing that “conditions can be created [as a result of the humanitarian pauses] that could potentially lead to additional hostage releases [and] that could potentially lead to an influx in humanitarian aid as well.”
The US official speaking to The Times of Israel recognized that Hamas would try and use such pauses to regroup but argued that Israel will still be able to take steps to limit this.
Pauses are needed to allow for Gaza terror groups to get a full accounting of the roughly 240 hostages, which is necessary to advance negotiations for a more widescale release, the US official added.
According to Israeli estimates, Hamas currently holds around 180 hostages, Palestinian Islamic Jihad holds roughly 40 hostages and unaffiliated mob families are believed to hold an additional 20, complicating negotiations significantly, as the Qatari mediators’ contacts are largely with Hamas’s political leaders abroad who have largely been sidelined by the terror group’s military leaders still in Gaza, the Israeli official said.
The Walla news site reported that in their call Monday, Biden tried to convince Netanyahu to agree to a three-day humanitarian pause, which would begin with the release of 10 to 15 hostages. The three days would then be used by Hamas to compile a full list of all the hostages, which would be passed along to Qatari mediators.
Netanyahu rejected the offer, saying that he didn’t trust that Hamas would be willing to release a large number of hostages and that it would suffice with releasing very small numbers while Israel would have a much harder time relaunching its fighting after three days due to international pressure that would surely mount, Walla reported.
The October 7 Hamas attack came with a barrage of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli population centers. Hamas and other terror groups have continued raining rockets on Israel, causing more deaths and damage, including on Tuesday evening, when a rocket scored a direct hit on a house in Savyon. There were no injured in that incident. Over 200,000 Israelis have been displaced by the attacks.
The Hamas-run health ministry claims that more than 10,300 Gazans have been killed since the start of the war, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes both Hamas terror operatives as well as those killed by failed Palestinian rocket launches at Israel. Hamas has been accused of artificially inflating the death toll, and does not distinguish between civilians and terror operatives.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.