Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has said Israel’s military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip aims to end Israeli responsibility over the Palestinian territory.
The 2.3 million residents in Gaza have no access to the outside world except through Israel, which controls most of the territory’s land and sea boundaries, and Egypt, which has a narrow land border to the south.
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Israel has enforced a strict blockade on the enclave since Hamas took over the territory in 2007, including comprehensive curbs on exports and imports, and severely restricting transit in and out. Egypt has largely supported the blockade.
The Israeli defence minister, briefing a parliamentary committee on Friday, said Israel’s military campaign in Gaza will unfold in three phases with the goal of establishing a “new security reality”.
He said the first phase, which was under way, would involve the destruction of Hamas military infrasructure. The second phase would include “lower intensity” operations and aim to “destroy pockets of resistance”.
“The third phase will require the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza strip, and the establishment of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel,” the minister said, according to a statement from his office.
The comments have come almost two weeks after Israel launched a devastating campaign of air raids on Gaza after Hamas fighters carried out a surprise attack on southern Israel.
At least 1,400 people were killed in the Hamas attack, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel has since bombarded Gaza relentlessly, killing more than 4,000 people and destroying entire neighbourhoods, according to Palestinian officials, and imposed a “complete siege” on the territory, cutting supplies of food, water and fuel.
Israeli officials have promised to “completely destroy” Hamas amid expectations that Israeli forces are preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza.
Israel has called up hundreds of thousands of military reservists, and amassed troops around Gaza. Addressing military personnel on Thursday, Gallant told his forces to “get organised, be ready.”
“Whoever sees Gaza from afar now, will see it from the inside,” he said.
Later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of soldiers to “fight like lions” and win “with full force”.
“We will deal harsh blows to our enemies in order to achieve victory,” he said.
Despite the suggestions that a ground assault could be imminent, officials have given no timeline for any incursion. Experts have warned that any ground offensive would likely be extremely challenging for Israeli forces.
“It’s hard to appreciate in fact how difficult this would be, we’ve described it as fiendishly difficult,” former CIA director David Petraeus told Al Jazeera.
“Urban combat is always challenging, but then you add the presence of over 200 Israeli hostages, you add in an enemy who is willing to kill himself to take Israelis with them.”
A ground invasion could lead be devastating for Palestinian civilians in the besieged territory with few options for safe haven. More than one million people have been displaced in Gaza, many following an Israeli order for residents of northern Gaza to evacuate to the southern part of the territory.
Many Palestinians worry that they may not be allowed to return home, amid fears of another mass forced displacement akin to the Nakba in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes.
Iran has suggested that an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza could spark a wider regional conflict, with groups like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon joining the fight alongside Hamas.