A deal will be needed to ensure captives still held in the Gaza Strip are released alive, Israeli war cabinet minister and former military chief Gadi Eizenkot says, adding that a lightning raid would be extremely unlikely to succeed.
Eizenkot, whose youngest son was killed in fighting in Gaza last month, said the fate of the captives should take priority over other war aims, even if that means Israel missing out on an opportunity to take out the political header of Hamas.
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Asked if the captives could be released in a rescue mission similar to the 1976 operation in which Israeli commandos freed about 100 hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, he said it was unlikely to happen.
“The hostages are scattered in such a way – even underground – that the likelihood [of such an operation] is extremely low,” Eizenkot told Israel’s Channel 12 programme Uvda late on Thursday.
“We are still making efforts and looking for every opportunity, but the likelihood is low and to say that this is how it will happen is to sow an illusion.”
Israel estimated that about 130 captives remain in Gaza and 27 have died in captivity. More than 100 captives seized during Hamas’s cross-border attack into southern Israel on October 7 were freed during a week-long November truce.
“I think it is necessary to say boldly that it is impossible to bring the hostages back alive in the near future without a deal,” Eizenkot said in the interview.
But he added that the broader war aims would “still be valid” after any temporary ceasefire.
At least 24,762 people have been killed in Israel’s air, ground and sea offensive in Gaza. The revised death toll in Israel from the October 7 Hamas attacks stands at 1,139.
Eisenkot’s comments were the latest sign of disagreement among Israel’s political and military leaders over the direction of the offensive in Gaza, now in its fourth month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have said the fighting will continue until Hamas is crushed and argued that only military action can win the captives’ release.
Hamas seeks an end to the war before discussing releases and has demanded thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel be released in exchange for those held captive in Gaza.
Eisenkot is one of four members of the war cabinet along with Netanyahu, Gallant and former Defence Minister Benny Gantz.
In his interview, he also said he had convinced officials in the group to hold off on any attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon in the days after the Hamas attacks, confirming that a preemptive strike was called off at the last minute during the early days of the war.
He described himself as being among those arguing against such a strike in an October 11 cabinet meeting that left him hoarse from shouting. “I think our presence there prevented Israel from making a grave strategic mistake,” he said.
Both Israel and Hezbollah have signalled they want to avoid war, but both said they are ready to fight if necessary.
Eizenkot also dismissed suggestions that the military has delivered a decisive blow against Hamas.
Gallant said Israeli forces have disabled the Hamas command structure in northern Gaza, from where significant numbers of soldiers were withdrawn this week, and that Israel’s focus is now on the southern half of the territory.
But Hamas has continued to fight back across Gaza, even in the most devastated areas, and launched rockets into Israel.
“We haven’t yet reached a strategic achievement, or rather only partially,” Eisenkot said. “We did not bring down Hamas.”