JERUSALEM – Israel signaled Saturday it plans to scale back its military operation in the Gaza war and will not participate for now in any cease-fire negotiations in Cairo with Hamas. The Islamic militant group suggested it won’t hold its fire in the case of a unilateral Israeli pullout, raising the prospect of renewed hostilities in the future.
Israel continued to pound Gaza with airstrikes Saturday, killing at least 72 Palestinians, many in the southern border town of Rafah where Israeli troops searched for a soldier feared captured by militants.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the Israeli military will reassess its Gaza operation once troops complete the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border. Once the tunnels are demolished, “the military will prepare for continuing action in according to our security needs,” he said, stressing all options remain on the table.
“We promised to return the quiet to Israel and that is what we will do. We will continue to act until that goal is reached, however long it will take and with as much force needed,” Netanyahu said. “Hamas needs to understand that it will pay an intolerable price as far as it is concerned for continuing to fire.”
Since the Gaza war began July 8, at least 1,712 Palestinians – most of them civilians – were killed and more than 9,000 were wounded, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since its 2006 with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Hundreds of soldiers have been wounded.
Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed and some 250,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
In Israel, much of the country has been exposed to Hamas rocket fire.
Earlier Saturday, Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel won’t send a delegation to proposed truce talks in Cairo for now. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 10 television station, he alleged Hamas repeatedly violated previous cease-fire deals.
“That leads us to the conclusion that with this organization there is no point in speaking about an agreement or a cease-fire because we have tried it too many times,” Steinitz said.
Already, there were signs of troop redeployments in Gaza.
The Israeli military told residents of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya it would be safe for them to return to their homes. The area, from which Gaza militants fired rockets at Israel in the past, came under heavy tank fire during Israel’s ground operation, forcing thousands to flee.
Israeli troops and tanks also started a gradual pullback from the area east of the Gaza town of Khan Younis to the border with Israel, residents and police officials there said.
Israel ended a previous major military operation in Gaza more than five years ago with a unilateral pullback.
From an Israeli perspective, the advantage of a unilateral pullout or troop redeployment to the strip’s fringes is that it can do so on its own terms, rather than becoming entangled in negotiations with Hamas. Hamas has said it will only halt fire if Israel and Egypt lift their seven-year-old border blockade of the territory.
However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future, a prospect underlined by defiant Hamas messages Saturday.
“We will continue to resist until we achieve our goals,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said after Netanyahu’s speech, dismissing the Israeli leader’s remarks as “confused.”
News of a possible reduction in Israeli military operations in Gaza came as troops continued their search for infantry 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin. The military said it believes Goldin was captured in a Hamas ambush east of Rafah about an hour after Friday’s internationally brokered and failed cease-fire took effect.
Hamas distanced itself from the purported capture, saying it was “not aware until this moment of a missing soldier or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
Meanwhile, the extent of destruction around Rafah became clear after intense Israeli shelling in response to Goldin’s suspected capture killed 70 and wounded some 450.
Entire apartment buildings in Rafah were flattened. Rescue teams sprayed water on charred rubble as families searched the wreckage for any salvageable belongings. Nearly two dozen bodies wrapped in blood-stained white cloth lay piled on the ground and the shelves of a cold storage room in a flower farm.
The farm’s owner, Ghazi Hijazi, said the Health Ministry asked him to keep the bodies.
Imad Baroud, his wife and three kids fled by foot from their home near the Gaza-Egypt border to his parents’ home in the center of Rafah to escape the shelling. He said his home was hit by artillery shells immediately after they left.
“The situation could not be described in words. The kids were yelling, they were scared, my wife was scared. I felt death was close,” Baroud said.
Goldin’s family, meanwhile, spoke to reporters Saturday, urging the government not to leave their son behind in Gaza.
“It is inconceivable that now we will leave Gaza with my brother kidnapped inside. That is a real failure,” said his brother, Hemi Golden.
His mother, Hedva, was more assertive: “He was sent there to protect Israel. I demand from the state of Israel that it not leave Gaza until it brings my son home.”
Palestinian officials reported more than 150 Israeli airstrikes Saturday across Gaza, including several against mosques and one against the Hamas-linked Islamic University in Gaza City. Heavy shelling also continued along the border areas.
The Israeli military said it struck 200 targets over the previous 24 hours. It said it attacked five mosques that concealed weapons and that the Islamic University was being used as a research and weapons manufacturing site for Hamas. The claim could not be independently verified.
Gaza militants, meanwhile, fired about 90 rockets at Israel since midnight, according to the Israeli military. Seven were intercepted by Israel’s rocket defense system, it said, while a mortar attack seriously injured a 70-year-old Israeli civilian.