Netanyahu says end of intense phase of Gaza war very close

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Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the end of the “intense phase” of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza was “very close”, and that Israel would soon redeploy forces to its northern border where it has been trading near-daily fire with the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 14, the Israeli prime minister said the end of this phase of fighting in the enclave would not spell the end of the war. He insisted that Israel would continue until it had destroyed Hamas and freed the roughly 120 hostages the militant group still holds.

But he said the switch to lower-intensity conflict there would give Israel “the possibility to shift some of our capabilities” to the north, where cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Iran-backed Hizbollah has escalated sharply in recent weeks.

“We will do this, first and foremost for defensive purposes. And secondly, to allow our residents to return home,” Netanyahu said, referring to the roughly 60,000 Israelis who have been evacuated from northern Israel since the start of the war.

“If we can do this diplomatically, great. If not, we will do it another way. But we will bring everyone back home.”

Netanyahu said he hoped a full-blown war with Hizbollah, one of the world’s most heavily armed non-state actors, could be averted. But he said Israel would “meet this challenge” of fighting on multiple fronts if needed.

“We can fight on several fronts. We are prepared for this,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview — his first with Hebrew media for 14 months — Netanyahu also ruled out the prospect of Israel re-establishing settlements in Gaza once the war with Hamas was over, and said that while he was prepared to countenance a brief truce to free hostages, Israel would resume fighting afterwards.

“I’m willing to do a partial deal that will return to us a portion of the [hostages], but we are committed to continuing the war after a pause in order to fulfil the war’s objectives,” he said.

Despite the intensifying exchanges between Israeli forces and Hizbollah, which have displaced tens of thousands of people and caused casualties in Lebanon and Israel, the two sides have not been drawn into all-out war, with the US leading a diplomatic push to de-escalate the situation.

A drone launched from southern Lebanon lands in the Upper Galilee region of Israel near the Lebanese border on Sunday © AFP via Getty Images

However, Israeli officials have repeatedly said they are prepared to take military action in the absence of a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, and the Israeli military said last week that senior officers had approved “operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon”.

That warning came after Hizbollah released a nine-minute video of what it said was footage gathered by its surveillance drones of Israeli military and civilian infrastructure in the north of the country, including the port in Haifa.

Diplomats briefed on the US-led talks to de-escalate the tensions between Israel and Hizbollah — which fought a 34-day war in 2006 — say a deal would involve Hizbollah withdrawing its forces from the border, and the resolution of a series of territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon.

Netanyahu told Channel 14 that two senior Israeli officials who visited Washington last week had expressed hope that a diplomatic solution could still be reached. But he said Israel would ensure that Hizbollah’s forces did indeed withdraw from the border.

“It won’t be an agreement on paper,” he said. “It will include the physical distancing of Hizbollah from the border, and we will need to enforce it.”

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