Israel must be prepared for an extended operation inside Gaza, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Monday night following a mortar attack that killed four soldiers in the Eshkol region and a foiled terrorist attempt to infiltrate Kibbutz Nahal Oz via an attack tunnel.
“We will not end the operation in Gaza without neutralizing the terror tunnels,” Netanyahu said at a press conference at the IAF headquarters in Tel Aviv along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.
While Netanyahu gave no indication when and how he intended to expand the campaign, Ya’alon said Israel would not be deterred from continuing the operation until Hamas realized that the current reality was destructive for it and the citizens of Gaza.
The press conference came at the end of a day that began with increased talk of a ceasefire amid a sense in Jerusalem that the diplomatic space the international community gave Israel to act was quickly closing.
The two indications of this were US President Barack Obama’s telephone conversation with Netanyahu on Sunday where he called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.”
This call was taken up a few hours later by the UN Security Council, which issued a presidential statement – still a notch down from a security council resolution – echoing Obama’s appeal.
Obama, in his conversation with Netanyahu, indicated that one of the prime minister’s key cease-fire demands – working toward the demilitarization of Gaza – would come ultimately as part of “any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Netanyahu, in his statements Monday evening, made clear that it had to be done much earlier than that.
“The action against the tunnels is a first and necessary step to the demilitarization of Gaza,” he said. “The process of preventing the arming of Gaza, the demilitarization, needs to be part of any solution.
And the international community must aggressively demand that.”
Netanyahu said instead of the international community allowing its funds to be used to buy concrete and mortar that are used to build terrorist tunnels inside Gaza, it needed to create a supervisory mechanism to ensure this would not happen again.
“When we raised this in the past,” Netanyahu said, “it was not taken seriously. This needs to change.”
In an apparent indication that Washington has gotten the message that Israel was determined on this point, US Secretary of State John Kerry – who came under harsh criticism in Israel over the last few days because of a cease-fire proposal that Jerusalem did not believe met its security requirements – clarified Monday that the US saw demilitarization as an integral component of an eventual cease-fire.
“We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups, and we will work closer with Israel and regional partners and the international community in support of this goal,” Kerry said in Washington on Monday.
Netanyahu, who has addressed the nation a number of times during the three-week campaign, told the country Monday that “there is not a more just war” than this one, and that it was clear at the outset there would be difficult and painful days.
Ya’alon, in his brief comments, said “[we] will not compromise on the security of Israel’s citizens, and will continue to hit Hamas in the coming days, to destroy terrorist targets, strike at their activists, destroy tunnels and topple facilities connected to its infrastructure.”
Ya’alon said Hamas was mistaken if it believed it could carry on a permanent dialogue with Israel through missiles, rockets and terrorist acts.
“If the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip think they can break Israel and its citizens, they will understand in the coming days that this is not the case,” he said.
Ya’alon expressed regret at the death of civilians inside Gaza.
“While we defend our children and citizens, Hamas is sacrificing its children and citizens,” he said. “Gaza’s residents and the whole world knows that.”
Gantz wrapped up the brief conference, saying the IDF was making excellent progress in the campaign, which he said would continue for as long as needed. Echoing Ya’alon, he said that it pained him, as it did most Israelis, to see civilians in Gaza harmed.
The IDF was taking all possible measures not to cause civilian casualties in Gaza, he said, reiterating Israel’s warning for civilians to distance themselves from the areas where Hamas operated. Holding up an intelligence picture, he said Hamas even fired from the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
Earlier in the day, a marathon nine-hour security cabinet meeting that broke up early Monday morning did not end with any clear indication of whether Israel was amenable to a cease-fire, or was intent – as Hamas continued to fire rockets – on expanding the campaign.
A number of hours before the press conference, Netanyahu slammed the UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, saying during a phone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the statement addressed the needs of a murderous terrorist organization, but not those of Israel.
The Security Council statement, he said, did not address Israel’s demands for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, a principle already established by previous interim agreements with the Palestinians.
“The statement does not refer to attacks on Israeli civilians, or to the fact that Hamas has turned the residents of Gaza into human shields,” he said.
Netanyahu, who met Ban in Jerusalem last week, also complained that the statement made no mention of the fact that Hamas used UN facilities to attack Israeli civilians.
Israel accepted three UN proposals for humanitarian truces, he said, and Hamas violated them all. “Even now they are continuing to fire at Israeli civilians. Israel will continue to deal with the terrorist tunnels, and this is only the first step in the demilitarization.”
The Security Council statement adopted early Monday morning and read by this month’s president, Eugène-Richard Gasana of Rwanda, expressed “grave concern regarding the deterioration in the situation in the Middle East as a result of the crisis related to Gaza and the loss of civilian lives and casualties.”
The statement “expressed strong support” for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.
Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, responding to the statement, said with signature sarcasm that the statement “miraculously managed” not to mention Hamas. Israel has grown tired of being vilified and demonized, Prosor said, particularly as organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram commit terrorist attacks.
After his conversation with Netanyahu, Ban said in a press appearance that “in the name of humanity, the violence must stop.”
While saying that “no country would accept the threat of rockets from above and tunnels from below, at the same time, all occupying powers have an international, legal obligation to protect the citizens,” he said.
Ban added that while he was in the region, he heard the wreckage in Gaza referred to as a “man-made hurricane.”
“There is no safe place in Gaza. The people of Gaza have nowhere to run,” he said. “They are trapped and besieged on a speck of land. Every area is a civilian area. Every home, every school has become a target.”
He repeated his concerns that Israel’s show of force has not been proportional, and said that the biggest roadblock to a sustainable peace was political will.
“Suffering and siege conditions in Gaza will only hurt civilians, further isolate Israel, empower extremists on all sides, and leave our world far less safe,” Ban declared.
Anna Hiatt contributed to this report from New York.