Netanyahu hits out at military after spokesperson says Hamas cannot be eliminated

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has hit back at comments from the nation’s military that destroying Hamas is an unattainable goal as rifts between the government and armed forces widen while the war in Gaza rages on.

In a statement issued by his office, Mr Netanyahu said the military were “obligated” to follow his orders, one of which is the “destruction of Hamas’ military and governance capabilities”.

His comments followed an interview on Israeli Channel 13 with Rear Adm Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the military, during which the soldier suggested that to say they were capable of destroying Hamas was akin to “throwing sand in people’s eyes”.

“Hamas is an idea, Hamas is a political party,” he said. “It is rooted in the hearts of people – whoever thinks we can eliminate Hamas is mistaken. To say that we are going to make Hamas disappear is to throw sand in people’s eyes.”

He added that the only way to end the role of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is to “develop something else to replace it”.

“Something that will make the population realise that someone else is distributing the food, someone else is taking care of public services … to really weaken Hamas, this is the way," Mr Hagari added.

The Israeli military responded to Mr Netanyahu’s rebuke on Thursday with another statement, saying that “the army is committed to achieving the war’s goals as defined by the cabinet”.

They added that Hagari had been talking about “the elimination of Hamas as an idea and ideology”, and that any other interpretation was “taking the quote out of context”.

But this latest spat between the military and the government highlights growing tensions within the country over how Israel’s forces are conducting their war in Gaza.

Protesters hold signs and flags during a demonstration calling for an hostages deal and against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government in Tel Aviv (Getty Images)
Protesters hold signs and flags during a demonstration calling for an hostages deal and against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government in Tel Aviv (Getty Images)

Around half of the 250 hostages seized by Hamas during their deadly assault on 7 October, which killed 1,200 people, remain in Gaza, and Rear Adm Hagari claimed it would be “impossible” to return all of them through military operations alone.

“We have to reach a scenario where the hostages are returned in another manner,” he said.

Last week, Israeli former army chief Benny Gantz, one of the three core members of the war cabinet convened immediately after 7 October, quit his position due to what he believes is Mr Netanyahu’s lack of a long-term plan for its war in Gaza.

Protests throughout Israel, including outside Mr Netanyahu’s residence, calling for the return of the hostages via negotiations, meanwhile, have become commonplace as the families of those still held in Gaza demand the government prioritise their relatives’ release over the destruction of Hamas.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s retaliatory offensive, according to the local health ministry, and international pressure has only grown to push Israel towards the negotiating table.

Mr Netanyahu, however, maintains that Hamas must be destroyed and that the militant group is using Palestinians as “human shields” in the Gaza Strip.

Gadi Eisenkot, an Israeli general who was an observer in the war cabinet before quitting alongside Mr Gantz, accused Mr Netanyahu of peddling a “baseless illusion” of total victory against Hamas last week.

“Total victory is a catchy slogan, [but] anyone promising that ‘we’ll deal with the battalions in Rafah and then bring back the hostages’ is sowing a baseless illusion," he said, referencing the Israeli military’s latest attack on Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

Earlier this week, Yaakov Bardugo, a close associate of Mr Netanyahu, published an article on Israel’s Channel 14 website claiming that the Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi supports leaving Hamas in power in Gaza.

The comments came after the army announced a limited pause in operations near a crossing into Gaza that was intended to help aid distribution into the besieged enclave. Aid groups have repeatedly warned that famine is imminent if supply routes are not reopened.

The decision prompted Mr Netanyahu to lash out at the military on Sunday evening, writing that Israel was a “country with an army, not an army with a country”.

“In order to achieve the goal of neutralising Hamas capabilities, I made decisions that were not always accepted by the army leadership,” he said. “We have a country with an army, not an army with a country."

After Mr Bardugo’s comments, an Israeli military spokesperson quickly denounced the claim as “a severe and baseless lie”, before adding that the idea that Hamas should be permitted to remain in control of Gaza was “unacceptable”.