Israel will not leave the Gaza Strip until it has destroyed the terror tunnels, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said on Thursday night, amid indications that the US and UN are trying to broker a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire.
Lapid, in a Channel 2 interview, stopped short of responding directly to reports that with the Egyptian cease-fire proposal stalled, Israel was considering unilateral action that would include withdrawing the army from Gaza after it finished destroying the tunnels; redeploying along the border; bombarding the Strip from the air if Hamas continued to fire rockets; and continuing to work with Egypt on a mechanism whereby the Rafah border to Sinai crossing could be reopened, perhaps with the presence of Palestinian Authority security officers.
Lapid, a member of the eight-person security cabinet, said that after the tunnels were dealt with, and after “quiet is restored for a long period of time,” there will be an agreement along the lines of the Egyptian proposal. “There is no other proposal on the table,” he said.
That plan, put forward two weeks ago, calls for a 48-hour unconditional cease-fire, followed by indirect negotiations in Cairo about a longer-term arrangement for Gaza.
Hamas has rejected it, placing conditions on a ceasefire including opening the border crossings, allowing the transfer of funds to pay Hamas salaries, extending fishing rights, and freeing Hamas prisoners released in the Gilad Schalit deal but rearrested last month.
One senior diplomatic official said Israel would only weigh a proposal that answered its key demands: Egyptian mediation, no conditions on the cease-fire, and Israel’s ability to continue dealing with the terror tunnels.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the opening of a special cabinet meeting called in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss the operation – the third such session since the military campaign began more than three weeks ago – that Israel was determined to continue destroying the tunnels “with or without a ceasefire.”
He said he would not agree to any cease-fire proposal that did not allow the IDF to complete neutralizing the tunnels. The army was completing the task, he said, but he gave no timeline.
Netanyahu said that just as the Iron Dome system could not guarantee that it would knock 100 percent of Hamas’s rockets out of the sky, so too could there be no guarantee that 100% of the tunnels would be unearthed and destroyed.
Nevertheless, IDF actions have turned up “impressive results in the field, and these actions are continuing at full strength even now,” the prime minister said.
Destroying the tunnels was only the first stage of “the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip,” and the EU, US and other important actors in the international community had accepted Israel’s position about the need to demilitarize Gaza, he said.
Netanyahu praised Israelis for their unity and resilience in the face of the Hamas rockets, saying this was a “force multiplier” that enabled the government to carry on the campaign “in a sagacious and responsible manner.”
A Channel 2 poll broadcast on Thursday night found that the country was united behind the prime minister, with 74% saying they were satisfied with his performance, and 18% dissatisfied. This is a drop from last week, when his numbers were even higher: 82% vs 10%.
The nation was divided, however, on the question of when to stop the operation, with 46% saying it should be halted after the tunnels were destroyed and another 46% saying it should only be stopped once Hamas was toppled.
Meanwhile, the US issued a harsh statement criticizing Israel’s shelling of a UN facility in Gaza on Wednesday, in which at least 15 Palestinians were killed, calling it “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”
Israel talks frequently about the importance it places on sparing civilian lives but the United States believes its government and military are not doing enough to that end, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing. “The shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”
He urged Israel to end its ground operation in Gaza, saying, “These reports that hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed are tragic.”
“We believe the Israeli government and the Israeli military need to do more to live up to the own standards that they have set for protecting innocent civilians,” he added.
The Pentagon also called on Israel on Thursday to do more to protect civilian life during its military operations in Gaza, saying the conflict was taking too high a toll on civilians.
Reuters contributed to this report.