Israel’s military campaign in Gaza will continue, even as it redeploys for operational reasons, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the nation on Saturday night, amid reports that tanks were moving out of the Strip.
“Operation Protective Edge is continuing, and the IDF continues to operate with full force in order to achieve the campaign’s objectives: restoring quiet and security for a long period, while significantly hitting the terrorist infrastructure,” Netanyahu said at a press conference at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
This was Netanyahu’s first public comment following Friday’s dramatic events, when two soldiers were killed and a third – Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin – is feared to have been abducted in a terrorist attack that took place 90 minutes after a UN- and US-brokered 72-hour cease-fire was to have gone into effect.
The security cabinet met for some five hours on Friday night, adopting a policy that both Netanyahu and Ya’alon hinted at: moving from believing in any type of negotiated arrangement with Hamas, to a more unilateralist approach based on deterrence.
According to this approach, Israel will try to reduce the danger to its troops while reserving the right to act with full force when and where necessary. This approach was favored after Hamas’s flagrant violation of Friday’s cease-fire – which it itself had sought – hammered home the idea that a negotiated arrangement through Egypt is simply impossible.
Both Netanyahu and Ya’alon said that the destruction of the terrorist tunnels reaching into Israel is nearing completion. The tunnels were the immediate reason given when Israel first launched its ground incursion. The prime minister said the IDF had destroyed “dozens of tunnels” – a strategic weapon Hamas has been working on for years. In addition, he said the IDF had hit “thousands” of terrorist targets – from “command centers to storage depots for rockets, rocket production lines, to rocket launchers, and the killing of hundreds of terrorists.”
While Netanyahu has said much of that in other statements to the press he has made over the nearly month-long campaign, one element he added on Saturday night was that there is now a level of regional cooperation which he said would surprise many, and which would be expanded after the campaign ends.
Though he did not mention any countries by name, this is believed to be in reference to cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – all of which have an interest, as does Israel, in dealing a severe blow to Hamas.
Netanyahu said this regional cooperation is a “very important asset” for Israel. “At the end of the battle and the operation, it will open many new possibilities for us,” he said.
In addition, against the background of last week’s tension with Washington, Netanyahu was full of praise for the US.
“I think the United States has been terrific,” he said. “I think it has offered terrific support for Israel.”
This support, he said, has come from President Barack Obama – who on Friday directly blamed Hamas for violating the cease-fire and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself – to Secretary of State John Kerry – with whom he said he speaks a number of times each day – and to Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
Netanyahu said reports about a tough conversation with Obama last Sunday, and another one with Shapiro on Friday in which he said that the US should never “second guess” him on Hamas, were wrong “both in tone and substance.”
He said there are many voices around the world who, like Obama and Kerry, “know what Hamas is,” and that it is an organization that wants to cause suffering and pain to its own people in order for the world to blame Israel.
Unfortunately, he said, there are other, less supportive voices being heard as well.
“To them I say, terrorism knows no borders. Today it threatens Israel, tomorrow it will threaten your countries,” he said. “There is only one place for decent, civilized people to stand, and that is to stand with Israel.”
Netanyahu said Israel would devote funds and its innovative genius to find a way to prevent tunnels from burrowing into Israel under any of its borders. He also lashed out at Qatar for its support and enabling of Hamas.
The press conference took part just minutes after the family of Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin held an emotional press conference outside their Kfar Saba home, calling for the IDF to remain inside Gaza until the officer is returned.
Netanyahu was scheduled to speak to them late Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Yair Lapid spoke Saturday with Kerry, thanking him for his support and financial assistance, especially for the Iron Dome.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.