Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was “preparing a ground invasion” of the Gaza Strip, in one of the clearest statements yet that his government is planning to enter the Palestinian enclave in its war to topple Hamas.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday evening the Israeli leader vowed to fight the militant group “above ground, underground, in Gaza and outside Gaza”, but gave no timeline for when any ground operation would occur.
“We are the sons of light and they are the sons of darkness,” said Netanyahu, who has compared Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, to the Islamic State terrorist group.
His remarks come amid a large deployment of Israeli troops at the Gaza border and a build-up of US military assets in the region, as Washington seeks to deter Iran and its regional allies from attacking US troops or opening a new front against the Jewish state.
“We are preparing for a ground invasion,” a sombre and tired-looking Netanyahu said, dressed all in black, in a primetime address to Israelis. “I won’t specify when, how or how many. I also won’t specify the entirety of the considerations that are being taken into account — most of which are unknown to the public, as it needs to be.”
Netanyahu said the timing of a ground assault would be made by a unanimous decision of the war cabinet and senior army commanders.
“All Hamas members are dead men,” Netanyahu said. “Above ground, underground, in Gaza and outside Gaza.”
The Israeli leader also said that the security lapses that led to Hamas’ devastating October 7 attacks would come under scrutiny. The Islamist group’s gunmen stormed into southern border communities and killed 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians.
Netanyahu said he too would be called to account.
“The failure will be investigated to the end. Everyone will need to give answers, me as well,” Netanyahu said. His remarks comes amid local press reports about differences within his war cabinet about strategy.
The US has asked Israel to hold off on its ground invasion so it can better develop its military plans, allow humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and to try to get out as many of the 200-plus hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 as possible. There are as many as 10 American citizens believed to be among them. The US is also trying to get foreign nationals trapped in Gaza out as well, via the territory’s sole border crossing with Egypt.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he had not demanded that Netanyahu wait to invade until the hostages were out, but suggested he should do so if he could.
“What I have indicated to him is [that] if that’s possible to get these folks out safely that’s what he should do . . . but I did not demand it,” Biden said at a press conference alongside Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese.
The US also wants more time to beef up its force protection and deter Iran and its regional allies from attacking US troops or opening a second front against Israel. The US has used the delay to rush ships, personnel and air defences to the region.
The Pentagon sent a Marine three-star general and other US military officers with experience of urban warfare in Mosul and Fallujah to help Israel as it draws up its invasion plans.
“Israel has the right, and I would add responsibility, to respond to the slaughter of [its] people, and we will ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself against these terrorists,” Biden said on Wednesday. “That’s a guarantee.”
Biden also added that Hamas “does not represent the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip or anywhere else”.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Wednesday that he believed it would be “an error” for Israel to move ahead with a ground invasion of Gaza if it led to indiscriminate civilian casualties.
Speaking in Cairo on Wednesday as he wrapped up a two-day diplomatic trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, Macron reiterated that Israel had a right to defend itself from the threat posed by Hamas, but also had a responsibility to protect Palestinian civilians.
“If a ground invasion was done to target terrorist groups in a specific way, then that is a choice that Israel can make,” he said. “But if it is a massive invasion that will endanger civilian lives then I think it is an error for Israel.”
Since declaring war on Hamas on October 7, Israel has laid siege to the coastal territory, cutting off power and fuel supplies and warning more than 1mn Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza to the south.
The siege, combined with intense Israeli bombardment, has killed more than 6,500 people, according to Palestinian health officials, and caused a deepening humanitarian crisis. UNWRA, the UN’s Palestinian relief agency, on Wednesday warned that it was within hours of running out of fuel, which would cripple its ability to deliver aid, including supplies to the more than 600,000 people sheltering in its schools and other buildings.
In less than three weeks the war has displaced tens of thousands of people in Israel from the southern border communities ravaged by Hamas gunmen on October 7, and from its far north, where the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militant group Hizbollah has escalated cross-border attacks in recent weeks, causing Israel to return fire, with fatalities reported on both sides.
The war has also dealt a blow to Israel’s economy. In his speech Netanyahu pledged financial assistance to citizens “just like we did” during the coronavirus pandemic. “We won’t leave anybody behind,” he said.