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regular-article-logo Friday, 19 July 2024

PM Netanyahu says Israel is winding down its Gaza operations, but he warns a Lebanon war could be next

The comments threatened to further heighten the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah at a time when they appear to be moving closer to war

AP Jerusalem Published 24.06.24, 01:43 PM
Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu File

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the current phase of fighting against Hamas in Gaza is winding down, setting the stage for Israel to send more troops to its northern border to confront the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The comments threatened to further heighten the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah at a time when they appear to be moving closer to war.

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Netanyahu also signalled that there is no end in sight for the grinding war in Gaza.

The Israeli leader said in a lengthy TV interview that while the army is close to completing its current ground offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, that would not mean the war against Hamas is over. But he said fewer troops would be needed in Gaza, freeing up forces to battle Hezbollah.

“We will have the possibility of transferring some of our forces north, and we will do that,” he told Israel's Channel 14, a pro-Netanyahu TV channel, in an interview that was frequently interrupted by applause from the studio audience.

“First and foremost, for defence,” he added, but also to allow tens of thousands of displaced Israelis to return home.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah began striking Israel almost immediately after Hamas' October 7 cross-border attack that triggered the Gaza war.

Israel and Hezbollah have been exchanging fire nearly every day since then, but the fighting has escalated in recent weeks, raising fears of a full-blown war.

Hezbollah is much stronger than Hamas, and opening a new front would raise the risk of a larger, region-wide war involving other Iranian proxies and perhaps Iran itself that could cause heavy damage and mass casualties on both sides of the border.

White House envoy Amos Hochstein was in the region last week meeting with officials in Israel and Lebanon in an effort to lower tensions. But the fighting has continued.

Netanyahu said he hoped a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be found but vowed to solve the problem “in a different way” if needed. "We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that,” he said.

He said any deal would not just be “an agreement on paper.” He said it would require Hezbollah to be far from the border, an enforcement mechanism and the return of Israelis back to their homes. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated shortly after the fighting erupted and have not been able to go home.

Hezbollah has said it will continue battling Israel until a cease-fire is reached in Gaza. The group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel last week against launching a war, saying Hezbollah has new weapons and intelligence capabilities that could help it target more critical positions deeper inside Israel.

Hezbollah already has unveiled new weapons during the low-level fighting, including hard-to-defend attack drones that strike with little warning. An Israeli soldier was badly wounded Sunday in a drone strike.

But Israel says it too has shown Hezbollah only a small part of its full capabilities, and that Lebanon will be turned into a second Gaza if there is a war. Israel's army last week said it had “approved and validated” a new plan for a Lebanon offensive.

In the interview, Netanyahu said that Israel's offensive in Gaza is winding down. The Israeli army has been operating in the southern border town of Rafah since early May.

It says it has inflicted heavy damage on Hamas in Rafah, which it has identified as the last remaining Hamas stronghold after a brutal war stretching nearly nine months. But he said Israel would have to continue “mowing” operations — targeted strikes aimed at preventing Hamas from regrouping.

Israel launched its air and ground invasion of Gaza immediately after Hamas' October 7 attack, which killed some 1,200 people and took about 250 others hostage.

The Israeli offensive has killed over 37,000 Palestinians, unleashed a humanitarian crisis and triggered war crimes and genocide cases at the world's top courts in The Hague.

It also has raised tensions with the United States, with President Joe Biden and Netanyahu clashing publicly over the course of the war. Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu again repeated his claim that there has been a “dramatic drop” in arms shipments from the US, Israel's closest ally, hindering the war effort.

Biden has delayed delivering certain heavy bombs since May over concerns of heavy civilian casualties, but his administration fought back last week against Netanyahu's charges that other shipments had also been affected.

Although the US and other mediators are pushing a cease-fire plan, Netanyahu has ruled out an end to the war until Israel frees all hostages held by Hamas and until it destroys Hamas' military and governing capabilities.

The current phase of the war “is about to end,” Netanyahu said. “That doesn't mean the war is about to end.”

Netanyahu spoke as his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, was in Washington for talks with American officials about the war and tensions with Lebanon. And next month, Netanyahu has been invited to address Congress for a speech that already is dividing Washington along partisan lines. Some Democrats, angry at Netanyahu's public fighting with Biden, say they will not attend.

American officials also have been pressing Netanyahu to spell out a clear post-war plan for Gaza. The US has said it will not accept a long-term Israeli occupation of the territory.

Netanyahu spelled out a very different vision. He said the only way to guarantee Israel's security is for Israel to maintain military control over the territory.

“There is no one else” capable of doing that, he said. But he said he is seeking a way to create a Palestinian “civilian administration” to manage day-to-day affairs in Gaza, hopefully with backing from moderate Arab countries.

He ruled out any role for the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority, which was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in a violent 2007 takeover.

Netanyahu said the Israeli army several months ago looked into working with prominent Palestinian families in Gaza, but that Hamas immediately “destroyed them.” He said Israel is now looking at other options.

Netanyahu ruled out one option favored by some of his ultranationalist governing partners — re-settling Israelis in Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, ending a 38-year presence.

“The issue of settlement is not realistic,” he said. “I'm realistic.”

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