JERUSALEM — Israel will continue its military campaign in the Gaza Strip as long as necessary to stop Hamas attacks on Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday evening, while suggesting a de-escalation of the ground war in Gaza may be near.
Separately, on Sunday morning, the Israeli military announced that an officer who had been thought to be captured by Palestinian militants during a deadly clash Friday morning that shattered a planned 72-hour cease-fire, was now considered to have been killed in battle.
As the death toll mounts to more than 1,650 Palestinians, many of them women and children, and pictures of homes, mosques and schools smashed into rubble fill the media, Netanyahu is under considerable international pressure, from Washington and Europe, to end the conflict. The United Nations warned starkly of “an unfolding health disaster” in Gaza, with little electricity, bad water and a shortage of medical supplies. At the same time, Netanyahu is under political pressure at home to deliver on his promises to crush Hamas, particularly with 63 Israeli soldiers dead and Sunday’s announcement that the officer thought to be captured by Hamas was now considered dead. He insisted Saturday that Hamas had been severely hurt and he warned that it would pay “an intolerable price” if it continues to fire rockets at Israel.
His former deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, who was fired by Netanyahu for public criticism of the government, said in a statement Saturday that “the cabinet is gravely mistaken in its decision to withdraw forces from Gaza. This is a step in the wrong direction.”
But Netanyahu, in a nationally televised speech with his defense minister beside him, insisted that Israel was achieving its goals and could alter its tactics.
“We promised to return the quiet to Israel’s citizens and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved,” Netanyahu said. “We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed.”
Israel was not ending its operation unilaterally, he said, adding: “We will deploy in the places most convenient to us to reduce friction on IDF soldiers, because we care about them,” referring to the Israel Defense Forces.
There were Israeli television reports Saturday that some forces were pulling out of Gaza, and Israel informed Palestinians in Beit Lahiya and al-Atatra, in northern Gaza, that it was now safe to return to their homes. Israeli officials have said that the army’s effort to destroy the elaborate tunnel system from Gaza into Israel would be finished in the next day or two.
Israeli officials suggested that the army would leave built-up areas and some forces would redeploy inside Gaza, closer to the border fence, in order to respond to attacks if necessary. Other units will return to southern Israel.
Hamas, for its part, vowed to continue fighting. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told the news agency Maan that “a unilateral withdrawal or redeployment by Israel in the Strip will be answered by a fitting response by the Hamas military arm.” He said that “the forces of occupation must choose between remaining in Gaza and paying the price or retreating and paying the price or holding negotiations and paying the price.”Netanyahu thanked the United States, which along with the United Nations appeared to support Israel’s position that Hamas’ actions violated the cease-fire, and he asked for international help to rebuild Gaza on the condition of its “demilitarization.” Israel appears to be hoping that with the support of Egypt and the international community, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can control Gaza through a unity government agreed upon with Hamas and take responsibility for security there and for the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
Netanyahu repeated that his goal was to restore “peace and calm” to Israel and that he intended to do so by whatever means — diplomatically or militarily.
“All options are on the table,” he said.
But he indicated that Israel would not get caught up again in discussions about a negotiated cease-fire with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and would act in its own interests, while seeking support from Abbas and the international community for what Netanyahu described vaguely as “a new reality” in Gaza.
Israel has decided not to send a delegation to cease-fire talks hosted by Egypt, at least not now, Israeli officials said.
Earlier, Netanyahu said he had no new information on the condition of the officer now believed dead, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23. But on Sunday, a military spokeswoman declined to say whether Goldin had been killed along with two comrades by a suicide bomb one of the militants exploded, or later by Israel’s assault on the area to hunt for him; she also refused to answer whether remains had been recovered.
The soldier’s parents called on the prime minister and on the army not to leave their son behind. Hours before, as word spread that Israel’s leaders were considering pulling all ground forces from Gaza, Goldin’s family spoke to journalists outside their home in the Tel Aviv suburb Kfar Saba.
“I demand that the state of Israel not leave Gaza until they bring my son back home,” said his mother, Hedva.
His sister, Ayelet, 35, added, “If a captive soldier is left in Gaza, it’s a defeat.”
The family said they were convinced that Goldin is alive. “I hope and believe in human kindness, that the world will do anything to bring Hadar with a smile back home,” his brother Chemi, 32, said in an interview.
When his mother called him Friday, Chemi said, he knew something terrible had happened but did not know whether Goldin or his twin, Tzur, who was also fighting in Gaza, was involved. Chemi said the twins, who attended kindergarten in Cambridge, England, did not talk much about their military service.
In Gaza, the armed wing of Hamas said early Saturday that it was not holding the Israeli officer. The Qassam Brigades suggested in a statement that the officer might have been killed along with his captors in an Israeli assault that followed a suicide-bomb attack by Palestinian militants, who emerged from a tunnel that Israeli troops were trying to destroy near the southern border town of Rafah.
“Until now, we have no idea about the disappearance of the Israeli soldier,” the statement said. Saying the leadership had lost touch with its “troops deployed in the ambush,” the statement added, “Our account is that the soldier could have been kidnapped and killed together with our fighters.”
The Israeli army continued to pound Rafah, striking more than 200 targets across Gaza in the 24 hours since the confrontation involving Goldin, including what it described as a “research and development” lab for weapons manufacturing at the Islamic University, run by Hamas. Five mosques that the military said concealed weapons or Hamas outposts were also hit, according to the Israelis.
Around noon, a barrage of rockets flew into southern Israel.
The Gaza-based health ministry, which had reported 70 people killed in Rafah on Friday, said the casualties had continued there overnight, including seven members of one family who died when their home was bombed.