Senior Israeli officials talked up the prospect of an imminent large-scale ground campaign in the Gaza Strip to root out the Hamas terror group Thursday, making a series of visits to Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed near the territory and predicting that the fighting will be “difficult, long and intense,” but ultimately victorious.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops near Gaza that the order to enter the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave would come “soon.”
“You now see Gaza from afar, soon you will see it from the inside,” Gallant told troops of the Givati Brigade. “The order will come.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also paid a visit to the frontlines, rallying a group of Golani soldiers near the Gaza border and telling them Israel was on its way to a major victory.
“We are going to win with all our might,” Netanyahu told the group of soldiers. “All of Israel is behind you, and we are going to heavily strike our enemies so that we can achieve victory.”
The head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, said the expected ground offensive would be “long and intense.”
“This war was forced on us, with a cruel enemy that harmed us greatly. But we stopped them… we are striking them heavily,” Finkelman told troops near the Gaza border.
“Now, the maneuver is going to move the fighting to their territory. We are going to beat them in their territory,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, long and intense.”
Gallant also took responsibility for the failure to prevent Hamas’s onslaught on southern Israel, speaking at a military assembly ground near the Gaza border.
“I am responsible for the defense establishment. I was responsible for it in the last two weeks, even in the difficult incidents, and I am responsible for bringing it to victory in the battle,” Gallant said.
“We will be precise and deadly and we will continue until we complete the mission,” Gallant said.
Israel has for the past week urged all residents of northern Gaza, some one million people, to evacuate to the center and south of the Strip as it prepares to intensify operations in the enclave’s north. Hundreds of thousands have done so, according to the military, despite Hamas urging them not to leave their homes and in some cases putting up roadblocks.
In a further sign the start of the ground offensive may be looming, Netanyahu’s security cabinet, the body which must approve a ground incursion, met Thursday evening. The forum has convened many times throughout the war already.
War erupted after some 2,500 Hamas-led terrorists blasted through the Israeli border fence on October 7, streamed into Israel via land, sea and air under a barrage of thousands of rockets, and killed some 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians.
Terrorists also took at least 203 hostages of all ages into Gaza and are holding them captive.
Israel called up 360,000 reservists in the wake of the massacre and has vowed to eliminate Hamas, which has been the de facto ruler in the Strip since 2006.
With tanks and weapons mustering near the Gaza border, reports have indicated that the military is awaiting a green light from the political leadership.
Recent days have seen growing pressure on the government to devise a clear strategy for how it plans to avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy reoccupation of the Strip, while ensuring the Palestinian enclave is no longer managed by the terror group and no longer poses a threat.
National Unity party chair Benny Gantz and fellow party member Gadi Eisenkot, who entered the coalition last week to form an emergency wartime cabinet, have demanded the creation of a Gaza exit strategy and have tasked a committee with drawing one up, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel earlier this week.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has also been privately pressing Israel to flesh out its exit strategy, the Israeli official and a US official said at the time. Netanyahu and his inner circle indicated to their American counterparts that Israel had not yet come up with such a strategy and is more focused on the immediate goal of removing Hamas from power in Gaza, the US official said.
On Wednesday, Biden cautioned Israel against getting bogged down in Gaza indefinitely, drawing on the US’s experiences in Afghanistan following its 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
“Justice must be done,” Biden said in Tel Aviv. “But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it… After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
Betraying an unease with the possibility that Israel’s campaign against Hamas could get derailed by civilian losses, Biden warned that wartime leadership “requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives.”
According to the Kan public broadcaster, the political leadership reportedly ordered the military to slow or halt activity in Gaza during Biden’s trip, and Jerusalem was thought to prefer to wait until after Biden’s visit to put boots on the ground in Gaza.
The fighting, which indeed appeared to abate during Biden’s visit to Israel on Wednesday, resumed in full force on Wednesday night and Thursday, with extensive Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Strip, and Palestinian terror groups firing frequent barrages of rockets toward central and southern Israel.
There were also growing exchanges of fire and rocket attacks on the Lebanon border, compounding fears that the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group could open a new war front, which it and Tehran have threatened will happen if Israel enters Gaza.
In Kiryat Shmona, three people were injured by a rocket strike on a home, in what appeared to be the most serious attack on the city since 2006.
In a briefing last week, a military official indicated that conditions on the northern border could affect the IDF’s decision-making on when to launch an incursion.
The prospect of a ground invasion has brought with it concerns that the Strip’s dire humanitarian situation could worsen. Aid is expected to start being delivered to Gazan civilians on Friday, when the Rafah crossing with Egypt was set to open.
After prodding by Washington, Israel said it would allow water, medicine and food to reach southern Gaza from Egypt, angering some family members of Israelis being held captive in Gaza, who had demanded concessions for their loved ones in exchange for any such move.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza continued on Thursday, alongside intense rocket fire by terrorists toward Israeli cities and towns, including the Tel Aviv area.
Rockets were fired in the late afternoon and evening toward cities including Holon, Rishon Lezion, Beersheba, Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon, as well as Gaza border communities.
Two rockets landed in Sderot, causing damage but no injuries. The vast majority of residents of the Gaza border city have left since the October 7 massacre.
Three senior officials in Gazan terror groups were reported killed early Thursday. The IDF said an airstrike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah had killed Rafat Abu Hilal, the head of the military wing of Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committees terror group, the third-largest terror faction in the Strip after Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Hamas-affiliated media in Gaza reported that Jamila al-Shanti, the widow of Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, was also killed in an Israeli strike.
And Palestinian media outlets reported that the head of the Palestinian National Security Forces in the Gaza Strip was killed in an Israeli airstrike.
The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza says at least 3,785 people have been killed since Israel began its airstrikes.
Some 1,524 children and 1,000 women are among those killed in the relentless Israeli airstrikes, the ministry said, claiming that another 12,493 people had been injured.
Israel and other international bodies have cast doubt on Hamas’s claims about the toll of those killed and wounded in Gaza. Jerusalem has said some 1,500 terrorists were killed in Israeli territory after the mass infiltration on October 7.
Jacob Magid, Lazar Berman, Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.