Israeli military official says Hamas cannot be destroyed, as rift with Netanyahu widens

Israel’s top military spokesman has said Hamas cannot be made to “disappear,” casting doubt about whether the government’s war aim of defeating the militant group can be achieved and drawing a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The idea that it is possible to destroy Hamas, to make Hamas vanish — that is throwing sand in the eyes of the public,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Read Adm. Daniel Hagari said Wednesday in an interview with Israel’s Channel 13.

Hagari’s comments prompted a terse response from Netanyahu’s office, which said Israel’s security cabinet “has defined the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities” as one of the aims of its war in Gaza.

“The IDF, of course, is committed to this,” Netanyahu’s office said.

The IDF later sought to clarify Hagari’s remarks, confirming it is committed to the government’s war goals and claiming that Hagari was only referring to Hamas “as an ideology and as an idea.”

Despite the IDF’s attempt to soften Hagari’s remarks, cracks appear to be deepening between the Israeli government and its military. Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure from members of his government and Israel’s allies, including the United States, to devise a strategy for the post-war governance of Gaza after Israel’s devastating bombardment of the isolated enclave.

In response to Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel, when militants killed more than 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage, Israel launched its war in Gaza with the primary goals of recovering the hostages, destroying Hamas’ ability to govern there and ensuring another attack could not be launched from the Palestinian territory.

But after eight months of war, and with the prospect of many more to come, Hagari’s comments echoed the growing fears that Israel’s military campaign may be unable to achieve those aims and that the group could remain a potent ideological force, despite Netanyahu’s claim to have killed more than 14,000 Hamas fighters. CNN cannot independently verify that figure.

Palestinians inspect damage after an Israeli strike on the Nuseirat camp in central Gaza, June 9, 2024. - Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians inspect damage after an Israeli strike on the Nuseirat camp in central Gaza, June 9, 2024. - Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images

“Telling the public that there will be no terror in Gaza, no military operatives, no rockets and no armed men is a lie,” Hagari said in a separate interview with CNN affiliate Kan 11.

“There will be terror in Gaza. Hamas is an idea, deeply rooted in the hearts of the residents of Gaza. To replace those who handle civil services and distribute or steal food, something else needs to be established. This is a decision for the political echelon, and the army will implement it.”

In a sign that Israel’s cabinet may be tempering its initial war aims of destroying Hamas in its entirety, government spokesperson David Mencer said that eliminating Hamas’ “military and government capabilities” does not “necessarily mean” killing every member of the group.

Mencer told reporters Thursday that Hagari’s comments had not harmed the war effort, but stressed it was the military’s responsibility to carry out “the will of the elected government.”

During discussions about the US-backed ceasefire plan, Netanayhu also appeared to have retreated from his maximalist rhetoric at the war’s outset. A statement issued last week – reportedly from the Prime Minister’s office – said Israel will not end the war “before achieving all its war objectives: destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, freeing all the hostages and ensuring Gaza doesn’t pose a threat to Israel in the future.”

The statement did not reference Netanyahu’s oft-repeated promise of total victory, nor the elimination of Hamas in full.

Netanyahu attends the state memorial ceremony for the Altalena martyrs in Givatayim, Israel, June 18, 2024. - Shaul Golan/Pool/Reuters
Netanyahu attends the state memorial ceremony for the Altalena martyrs in Givatayim, Israel, June 18, 2024. - Shaul Golan/Pool/Reuters

Hagari’s comments sparked the latest in a growing series of public disagreements between Israel’s government and military. Last weekend, the IDF announced a daily “tactical pause” of military activity along a route in southern Gaza to allow aid to be distributed – a decision that rankled Netanyahu, an Israeli official told CNN.

Netanyahu contacted his military secretary and said the idea was unacceptable, but later backed down after being assured the fighting in Rafah would continue, according to the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The IDF’s decision to implement tactical pauses also drew fierce criticism from the increasingly rancorous far-right wing of Netanyahu’s coalition. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said whoever made the decision “is evil and a fool who should not continue to be in his position.”

An IDF spokesperson later told CNN the decision for the “tactical pause” was approved by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

While Israel has had some success in returning those abducted on October 7 – both through a ceasefire-for-hostage deal in November and a daring rescue operation to retrieve four people earlier this month – hope that Israel will be able to return the hostages may also be dwindling.

A senior Hamas official told CNN he has “no idea” how many of the 120 remaining hostages in Gaza are still alive, and that any deal to release them must include guarantees of a permanent ceasefire and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

CNN’s Caitlin Danaher, Eugenia Yosef and Benjamin Brown contributed reporting.

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