Israel is prepared to continue fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the army completes its primary mission of destroying cross-border tunnels from the Palestinian territory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.
In a news conference in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Netanyahu said the Israeli army “will act and continue to act” according to the country’s security needs, adding that Hamas will pay an “intolerable price” should there be more attacks.
Netanyahu’s latest statement contradicted earlier reports that some of the Israeli military operation will be winding down in the coming days.
Senior Hamas spokesperson Izzat al-Rishq called Netanyahu’s speech “a declaration of failure and defeat”.
Rishq said: “Netanyahu’s speech underlines his frustration and defeat, and the recognition of the failure of this aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip,” stressing that the speech was a “desperate attempt to raise the collapsed morale of his army”.
He said: “we will hold the criminal Zionist enemy the full responsibility for the consequences of this aggression and the crimes committed against our unarmed civilians”.
The Hamas official warned that “the Palestinian resistance will continue to respond to the Zionist aggression” and “we will always defend our people until the enemy stops its aggression, lift the siege and until we have our people’s fair rights”.
The Israeli army said on Saturday that it had determined that Hadar Goldin, the 23-year-old soldier it said was captured by Hamas on Friday, was killed in action.
The army had previously said that Goldin went missing when its soldiers, two of whom were killed, were attacked while trying to destroy a Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza.
Earlier on Saturday, the Israeli military told residents of Beit Lahiya that they could now return to their homes.
Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston also reported seeing tanks pulling out, but added that “it is difficult” to determine the scale of the withdrawal.
She said that so far many residents have refused to follow the advise out of fear for their lives.
“People are saying to us, at this stage they are not returning home. They don’t trust Israel. No one feels safe enough to return home at this stage,” she said, adding that shelling can still be heard late on Saturday.
A diplomatic solution also appears unlikely to end the crisis as Israel announced earlier on Saturday that it would not attend the talks set in Cairo.
On Saturday, the Office of the Emir of Qatar said Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had received a phone call from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in which the emir had expressed his astonishment regarding the statement issued by Ban on Friday blaming Hamas and other factions as being responsible for the violation of the ceasefire in Gaza.
The emir said that the UN should have verified what exactly had happened before issuing its statement.
The emir expressed his regret and his astonishment regarding the UN silence over Israel targeting and killing Palestinian civilians and the destruction of their homes.
He called on the UN secretary-general to take a clear position towards Israeli crimes [committed] against the Palestinian people, the office said.
The emir also urged all parties to open the border crossings in order to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
Death toll still rising
Meanwhile, bombardments continued across the Palestinian territory including the southern district of Rafah on Saturday afternoon, Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Gaza, said. The targets included a major mosque and a university.
Gaza health ministry officials say the death toll since Israel began its offensive against Gaza on July 8 has now risen to 1,712 Palestinians.
Among those who were killed 398 were children, 207 women and 74 elderly. There were also 64 soldiers and three civilians killed on the Israeli side.
“We have seen a lot of fighting there with over 120 people killed in a 24-hour period, and we have on good authority that that number is much higher, but the reason it has not been updated is that nobody could get into Rafah,” Tyab said.
Aside from the Islamic University, one of Gaza City’s largest mosques, Shifa mosque, was also badly damaged by an Israeli strike.
“Over the past several days, it’s becoming very clear that there are no red lines,” Tyab said.
“At least six hospitals have been targeted, and we know that UN schools where people were sheltering, have been targeted.”
Israeli forces on Saturday sealed off the eastern Rafah area, and warned that cars on the streets would be considered potential targets, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from southern Gaza, said.