Ibrahim Khader/SIPA/AP

Israel winding down Gaza ground operation without agreeing to a truce

Troops move back toward Israeli border, but Israel rejects further cease-fire talks and vows continued action

Israel is prepared to continue fighting armed groups in Gaza even after the army completes the mission of destroying cross-border tunnels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Saturday. Israeli media quoting government sources reported that the move followed a decision by Israel's security cabinet to unilaterally wind down its Gaza operation without negotiating a cease-fire — out of concern that a truce would require concessions to Hamas. 

"After completing the anti-tunnel operation, the [Israel Defense Forces] will act and continue to act, in accordance with our security needs and only according to our defense needs, until we achieve our objective of restoring security to you, Israel's citizens," Netanyahu said.

While Israel's leaders now seek to end the current round of fighting on the basis that it has reestablished Israel's deterrent against attacks from Gaza, Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until Israel ends aggression against Gaza and ends its seven-year blockade.

Netanyahu said Hamas would pay an "intolerable" price if it continued to attack Israel, but analysts warn that Hamas will likely test that proposition.

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"The war has wiped out entire families, devastated neighborhoods, destroyed homes, cut off all electricity and greatly limited access to water," writes Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group. "It will take years for Gaza to recover, if indeed it ever does. And it seems unlikely that Hamas will be ready for another fight anytime soon. So it has every incentive to try to achieve its core objectives now, especially an end to Gaza’s closure."

Hamas’ military wing said Saturday that an Israeli soldier reportedly captured by Palestinian fighters in Rafah had been killed by Israeli shelling, as Israel announced it would not be sending a delegate to Egyptian cease-fire talks.

The most recent attempt at a truce in Gaza fell through Friday morning, with intense Israeli shelling of Rafah after Palestinian fighters killed two Israeli soldiers and left the fate of the third soldier unknown. Both sides blamed the other for the cease-fire’s collapse.

Hamas' armed wing, the Al-Qassam brigades said in a statement they had lost contact with a group that may have been holding the missing Israeli soldier when Israel launched a massive bombing campaign near Rafah on Friday.

“We lost contact with a group of fighters … when Israeli occupation forces penetrated east of Rafah,” the group said. “We suspect they were all killed by Israeli shelling, including the soldier, who, supposedly was abducted by the group.”

Netanyahu warns Obama

Following the breakdown of a lull in fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly spoke by phone to United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, expressing his anger that the U.S. tried to force an immediate cease-fire with Hamas.

According to people familiar with the call, Netanyahu told the ambassador that the Obama administration was "not to ever second-guess me again." The prime minister added he "expected" the U.S. to fully support Israel's actions in Gaza.

In a sign that Israel's ground offensive against Gaza could be phasing down, Israeli media reported earlier on Saturday that Israel pulled back some of its forces to positions several hundred meters from the Israeli border inside Gaza. These forces are meant to secure Israeli communities near Gaza in case of future incursions by Palestinian armed groups, Haaretz reported.

Other forces were redeployed inside Israel, while remaining soldiers are demolishing remaining tunnels, Haaretz said, adding that the Israeli military was expected to announce within 24 hours that all known tunnels between Gaza and Israel had been destroyed. 

The Gaza health ministry said that 78 Palestinians had been killed since Saturday morning, bringing the total number of deaths to over 1,600. UNICEF said Saturday that at least 296 children have been killed since the start of Israel's latest offensive on Gaza about 40 weeks ago, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Al-Qassam said in its statement that Israel broke Friday’s cease-fire, and the clashes between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers had taken place before the cease-fire went into effect. The group said that Israeli airstrikes and artillery shelling in an effort to find the missing soldier had taken place after the truce went into effect.

Israel pinned the clashes that took place in tunnels, in which two soldiers were killed and one reportedly captured, as the reason the cease-fire meant to last 72 hours fell through. A senior Israeli official said they would would not send a delegation to Cairo for more talks on Saturday. “There’s no point in promoting an agreement,” the official said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“We’re not talking about cease-fires anymore,” he added. “Israel will act in its own interest. We will take action against attacks from Gaza, and will finish dealing with the tunnels.”

'Like an action movie'

A Palestinian delegation went to Egypt Saturday, even though representatives from Gaza were not able to go because of Israel’s heavy bombing in Rafah near the border crossing into Egypt, Haaretz said.

Israel’s bombardment of Rafah left at least a dozen homes demolished, and families in the homes said each lost between two and eight family members in the strikes. Residents said they had received warnings on their telephones from the Israel military to stay indoors during the barrage.

“It was like an action movie — explosions everywhere, cars flying up in flames, people crushed under houses that were bombed,” Gaza resident Bassim Abed told Reuters. “It was a miracle I escaped the area. It was another miracle I didn’t die of fear.”

Some 50,000 people living in villages near Rafah have been displaced by fighting, according to Ashraf Goma, a Palestinian lawmaker. Goma accused Israel of committing a war crime.

At least 1,700 Gazans have been killed and over 9,000 injured since Israel launched an air and naval offensive against the occupied territory on July 8, which escalated into a ground operation. Three civilians in Israel and 63 soldiers have been killed. Israel blamed Hamas rocket fire for starting the conflict, while Hamas has accused Israel of provocation by its weeks-long crackdown on the group’s members in the West Bank.

With wire services

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