By: ISABEL KERSHNER & FARES AKRAM
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Thursday said he would not agree to any ceasefire proposal that does not allow the Israeli military to complete its mission of destroying Hamas’s tunnel network in Gaza.
“So far we have neutralized tens of terror tunnels,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks at the start of a government meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv. “We are determined to continue to complete this mission with or without a ceasefire,” he added.
Maj Gen Sami Turgeman, the chief of the Israeli military’s southern command, on Wednesday said it would take “a few more days” to destroy the tunnels that Israel had already located, many of which run beneath the border into Israeli territory.
As the Israeli operation extended into its 24th day, and in the absence of any quick progress in international efforts to forge a ceasefire deal, the Israeli military said it had called up an additional 16,000 reserve soldiers, bringing the total number of those called up to 86,000. A military official said the move was meant “to maintain the army’s preparedness and flexibility” and to allow other reservists to take a break. He said it did not signify plans for any immediate broadening of the ground invasion.
Hamas’s military wing in Gaza has so far indicated that it would reject any ceasefire that allows Israel’s forces to continue operating inside the Gaza Strip. Israeli analysts say if no deal is reached by the time Israel has completed its work on the tunnels, the government will have to decide between unilaterally withdrawing the ground forces or expanding the goals of the operation and going deeper into Gaza.
At least nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes and shelling early Thursday, according to health officials in Gaza, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 1,370, with many civilians among the dead. Israel began its aerial offensive on July 8 and sent in ground forces on July 17, with the stated goals of quelling heavy rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and severely damaging Hamas’s fortified tunnel network in the Palestinian coastal enclave.
On the Israeli side, 59 have been killed. Rocket fire into southern Israel continued on Thursday.
The Israeli military also said its forces spotted a militant emerging from a tunnel shaft in the northern Gaza Strip Thursday morning and killed him, and another force spotted a squad of five militants who were then targeted in an airstrike.
The Israeli security cabinet agreed on Wednesday “to continue the operation against Hamas,” especially focusing on its tunnel network, an Israeli official said, describing destruction of tunnels as “crucial” for Israel as they threaten Israeli civilian communities along the border with Gaza.