'Intense phase' of Israel's war in Gaza over as focus shifts to Lebanon, says Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comments contradict the US's stance on a ceasefire. Credit: AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the war against Hamas is winding down, as the country focuses on its border with Lebanon where fighting with the militant group Hezbollah is escalating.

While saying the "intense" part of Israel's war in Gaza is over, Netanyahu vowed Israel would continue a military operation until Hamas was eliminated.

“It doesn’t mean that the war is going to end, but the war in its current stage is going to end in Rafah... we will continue mowing the grass later,” Netanyahu told Channel 14 Television.

Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said, on Monday, that Israel is close to dismantling Hamas military brigades in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

He claimed the country maintains “full control” over the Philadelphi Corridor, a strategic buffer zone along Gaza’s border with Egypt which Israel says is awash with tunnels that Hamas uses to smuggle weapons and other goods.

Mr Halevi said Israel’s control over the buffer zone will bring an end to that.

This success will mean Israel will likely turn its forces towards the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, who began striking the country almost immediately after Hamas’ October 7 cross-border attack.

The fighting has intensified in recent weeks, raising fears of a full-blown war.

Hezbollah is much stronger than Hamas, and opening a new front would raise the risk of a larger, region-wide war involving other Iranian proxies and perhaps Iran itself.

Netanyahu said he hoped a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be found but vowed to solve the problem “in a different way” if needed.

″We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that,” he said.

The Israeli leader said he is ready to make “a partial deal” with Hamas to return some hostages still being held captive in Gaza, but he reiterated his position that the war will still continue after a ceasefire “to achieve the goal of eliminating” Hamas.

The prime minister's comments are likely to throw the validity of the US-backed ceasefire deal into doubt and frustrate President Joe Biden.

Last month Biden presented a ceasefire deal he claimed Israel backed that was aimed at ending the war in Gaza.

The three-phased plan would bring about the release of the remaining hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

But disputes and mistrust persist between Israel and Hamas over how the deal plays out.

Hamas has insisted it will not release the remaining hostages unless there’s a permanent cease-fire and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Hezbollah has said it will continue battling Israel until a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel last week against launching a war, saying Hezbollah has new weapons and intelligence capabilities that could help it target more critical positions deeper inside Israel.

Hezbollah already has unveiled new weapons during the low-level fighting, including hard-to-defend attack drones that strike with little warning.

But Israel says it too has shown Hezbollah only a small part of its full capabilities, and that Lebanon will be turned into a second Gaza if there is a war. Israel’s army last week said it had “approved and validated” a new plan for a Lebanon offensive.

Hezbollah has been targeting towns in northern Israel. Credit: AP

At least 25 people were killed and a further 50 wounded in Israeli strikes on tent camps for displaced Palestinians near Rafah at the weekend, Gaza health officials have said in the latest attack on the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the hospital was flooded with casualties, and it condemned the firing of “high-calibre projectiles” a few metres from the facility.

More than a million Palestinians took shelter in Rafah in the early part of the war before Israel started its air and ground operation in May despite international pressure.

Last month, the UN’s top court ordered Israel to immediately halt its controversial military operation there, calling the humanitarian situation “disastrous.”

Around 800,000 people have since been displaced from Rafah, where conditions have been described by the United Nations food agency as “apocalyptic.”

The city’s border crossing with Egypt - a vital entry point for humanitarian aid - has remained closed since the Israeli military seized it early last month.

Israel launched its air and ground invasion of Gaza immediately after Hamas’ October 7 attack, which killed some 1,200 people and took about 250 others hostage.

The Israeli offensive has killed over 37,000 Palestinians, unleashed a humanitarian crisis and triggered war crimes and genocide cases at the world’s top courts in The Hague.

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