Israel launched its ground operation Thursday night because there is no other way to deal with the labyrinth of tunnels threatening Israel from inside the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Friday.
“Since there is no way to deal with the tunnels only from the air, our soldiers are doing it now from the ground,” the prime minister said, speaking at the opening of an emergency cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv. Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting has been canceled.
Netanyahu said that there was no guarantee of 100 percent success, but that everything was being done to get “maximum results.”
The meeting was held in a protected room in the Defense Ministry so it would not be interrupted by rocket attacks on Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu said he has directed the army to prepare for the possibility of a significant expansion of the ground operation.
The decision to carry out the ground operation was made after Hamas continued to fire on Israel even after Israel accepted both an Egyptian cease-fire proposal on Tuesday, and a UN initiative for a humanitarian lull in the fighting on Thursday, he said.
“We decided to launch the action after we tried all the other ways, and with an understanding that without this operation the price we will have to pay later would be much higher,” he said.
Intensive diplomatic efforts had created diplomatic space for Israel to act systematically and with force against the terrorist organizations, Netanyahu said.
“This is not a given,” he stressed.
“The supreme consideration guiding us is to restore security to the civilians and quiet to the state,” he said.
“There is not a more moral army than the IDF, and we do not want to harm even one innocent civilian. Not even one. We are operating only against terrorist targets.”
The terrorist organizations bear the responsibility for harm to the civilians in Gaza because they are attacking Israeli towns and cities from behind human shields, the prime minister said.
Netanyahu said that he knows that the world will get a distorted picture of the operation, something that is “unpreventable.”
“But unlike in the past, this time there are many in the international community who understand that Hamas alone bears responsibility for the victims,” he said. “This is something very important for Israel.”
Netanyahu praised the country for its fortitude and called on it to continue to heed the directives of the Home Front Command.
“I met the officers leading the IDF action,” he said. “They are unbelievably impressive: courageous, determined, full of faith and values. I stand in wonder at the motivation of our soldiers, both the regular soldiers and reservists, who want to take part in the campaign.
They understand that their objective is to defend the citizens of Israel. They know that they are fighting for a supreme goal: to defend our home.”
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz told the cabinet that even as the ground operation was under way in the south, Israel was keeping its eyes open on other fronts.
Speaking to reporters before the cabinet meeting, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch counseled patience, saying the operation “will not end that fast.”
Israel was not talking about retaking the Strip, but had defined its goals, he said.
“The IDF will strike Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” he said. “We waited a long time [before deciding on a ground operation], the minute when Hamas was not willing to accept a cease-fire we had legitimacy to act.”
Aharonovitch said it was predictable that the firing of rockets on the South would continue, and that patience was needed.
“This will not end in one or two days,” he said.
He said that no decision yet was taken to retake Gaza. “We might get to that stage, but now the operation is going as planned.”
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said the goal of the beginning of the campaign is to remove the threats posed by the tunnels.
What was needed was a massive, significant ground operation, and afterward “to continue to strike the terrorists and not wait a year or a half and allow them to replenish their strength for another round,” he said.
Ariel said that Israel needed to take into consideration diplomatic pressure to reach a cease-fire, and for that reason needed to move quickly and not find itself under pressure it will not be able to withstand.
He said Israel needed to “go in and finish the job.” There is no choice but to move inside the Strip and “create order.”