Gaza City - Israel will keep up its military campaign in the Gaza Strip for as long as needed and with as much force as necessary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday.
And he said that all options were “on the table” to achieve that mission. “From the beginning, we promised to return the quiet to Israel’s citizens and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved. We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” he said in a public address.
“All options are on the table to return peace to the citizens of Israel.”
He also pledged to do whatever necessary to bring home 23-year-old soldier Hadar Goldin, who Israel believes was captured by Palestinian militants during an ambush in southern Gaza early on Friday.
“Israel will continue to make every effort to bring its missing sons home,” he pledged in remarks made just after the missing soldier’s mother made an emotional appeal demanding there be no troop withdrawal until her son is found.
He said troops would complete the mission of destroying a complex network of tunnels used by militants to infiltrate southern Israel before deciding on its next security objectives.
“After the completion of our activity against the tunnels, the IDF (army) will prepare to continue our activities according to security needs, and only according to our security needs, until we achieve the objective of returning security to the citizens of Israel,” he said.
Earlier, the Israeli army gave an indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza. As a Palestinian delegation flew to Egypt in search of a ceasefire, the Israeli army conveyed a message to residents of part of northern Gaza that it was “safe” to return home.
“They have been informed it is safe for civilians to return to Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra,” a spokeswoman told AFP, in what was understood to be a confirmation that troops had stopped operating there.
Witnesses in the north confirmed seeing troops leaving the area as others seen leaving another flashpoint area in southern Gaza.
It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of Israel’s devastating 26-day operation, which has so far claimed more than 1,660 Palestinian lives and forced up to a quarter of the territory’s population into exile.
Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that is still ongoing, with medics saying it killed 114 people in 24 hours. Since midnight (2100 GMT), more than 74 people have been killed, the vast majority in Rafah, raising the overall toll to 1,670, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
The vast majority of the dead are civilians, medics said, with the number of wounded at more than 9,000. The alleged capture of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin drew sharp condemnation from the United Nations and the White House, who had jointly brokered the abortive 72-hour truce, and who demanded his immediate release. Israel has said it believes Goldin was snatched in an ambush that involved a suicide bomber, who killed two other soldiers, and has placed the blame squarely on Hamas.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush early Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding the missing man, saying the attackers were missing and presumed dead.
“We have lost contact with the mujahedeen unit that was in that ambush, and we think that all the fighters in this unit were killed by Zionist shelling along with the soldier, who the enemy says is missing, assuming our combatants captured this soldier during the fighting,” it said,
“Until now, we in Qassam have no knowledge of the missing soldier, or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
Israel said it was focusing its search for Goldin on the outskirts of sprawling Rafah, where some 210,00 Palestinians live. Israel considers the capture of its soldiers a casus belli.
US President Barack Obama “unequivocally condemned” Friday’s killing of two soldiers and the lieutenant’s alleged capture, saying that if those responsible wanted an end to the bloodshed, Goldin would need to be “unconditionally released, as soon as possible”.
Meanwhile, air strikes and tank fire pounding huge areas of Gaza into rubble, killing four members of the same family in the central area of Deir al-Balah and another eight - from two separate families - in Rafah, medics said.
UN figures show that up to 25 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million may have been forcibly displaced, with more than a quarter of a million now seeking safety in shelters belonging to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Saturday a Cairo truce plan can offer a solution to the spiralling violence.
The Palestinian delegation going to Cairo includes intelligence chief Majid Faraj, senior Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzuq, and Ziad al-Nakhale, a leader of Islamic Jihad. Ahead of the meeting, Sisi said Egypt’s Gaza truce proposal offered a “real chance to find a solution to the crisis” but that it must be implemented quickly to stop the bloodshed.