Israel to Ease Off Gaza Fighting as Focus Moves to Hezbollah

(Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said intense fighting with Hamas will soon be paused and some forces redeployed to the north of the country, where violence is escalating with Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

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The military will continue its campaign to eradicate Hamas from Gaza but switch to more targeted operations, Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 14 on Sunday. He had been asked about the duration of fighting in the enclave’s southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million people have been displaced to allow Israel to target what it said were the last remaining Hamas battalions.

“It will be very soon,” Netanyahu said of the planned de-escalation, in his first interview with Israeli media since the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 triggered the near nine-month war. About 1,200 people were killed in that invasion, with 250 more taken hostage.

The focus will then turn to northern Israel, Netanyahu said, where cross-border exchanges with Hezbollah have been taking place since October. Israel’s military said last week that operational planning for an offensive in Lebanon has been approved, with the aim of driving back the group and allowing tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from the border area to return home.

A similar number of people have had to move out of southern Lebanon.

“If we can, we’ll do this by diplomatic means, if not it’ll be achieved in another way,” Netanyahu said, echoing weeks of escalating rhetoric between Israel and Hezbollah, a heavily armed militia that has been fighting in solidarity with Hamas.

Both Hezbollah and Hamas are backed by Iran and considered terrorist organizations by the US.

The US has for months been striving to prevent open warfare breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah, and a top military official warned Sunday that Washington may not be able to assist Israel to the same extent as when it helped intercept missiles from Iran in April.

It would be harder to fend off the shorter-range rockets favored by Hezbollah, Charles Brown, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday in comments reported by Associated Press. Such a conflict would also risk drawing a fresh response from Tehran, he added.

No Cease-Fire

Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza last year — aimed at returning hostages taken on Oct. 7 and uprooting Hamas as a military and political entity — has killed some 37,000 Palestinians, according to authorities in the Hamas-run enclave who don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians. About 313 Israeli soldiers have died in the ensuing conflict, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The war has left much of Gaza in ruins and the enclave’s population battling shortages of food, water and health care, according to the United Nations. Aid companies have struggled to get enough assistance to those who need it due to tightly controlled borders and customs checks, as well as ongoing warfare.

In the interview, Netanyahu rejected the prospect of a cease-fire deal with Hamas that could eventually lead to the end of war — as laid out in a speech by US President Joe Biden at the end of May.

“If there is an agreement, it will be on our terms and that would not mean ending the war, withdrawing from Gaza and leaving Hamas rule intact,” he said.

“I am willing to agree to a partial deal that will see some of the Israeli hostages come home, and after such cease-fire ends, we will be committed to continuing the fighting until the goal of eliminating Hamas is completed,” he said.

His interview angered families of hostages, who blame him for abandoning those who remain in Gaza. He’s “violating the country’s moral duty toward its citizens,” a statement by hostage family members issued after the interview said.

Netanyahu’s office issued a later statement saying he was in fact committed to bringing back all the hostages. Around half were released during a week-long truce — the only one so far — that ended on Dec 1. Of those remaining, Israeli officials believe at least around 40 have died.

“It is Hamas that opposes a deal, not Israel,” the prime minister’s statement read. “Netanyahu has made clear we will not leave Gaza until we return all hostages, living and deceased.”

Hamas has repeatedly said it won’t agree to a cease-fire deal that doesn’t include the permanent withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv again on Saturday, demanding new elections and a cease-fire to get the hostages out.

(Updates with US military comments in seventh paragraph.)

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