MIDDLE EAST

Netanyahu says Israel's assault on Gaza Strip will continue

Benjamin Netanayahu says Israel will continue fighting to destroy 'terror tunnels' on Gaza Strip

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the country would continue its assault on militant targets in the Gaza Strip despite growing international concern about the number of Palestinian civilian casualties in the conflict.

In a round of interviews on Sunday TV talk shows, Netanyahu said Israel would remain focused on destroying the militant group Hamas’ “terror tunnels” that extend from Gaza into Israel and threaten the nation's security. The Israeli leader's statement's came after Hamas, which initially rejected a new humanitarian cease-fire, said it would agree to one.

“Israel is not obliged and is not going to let a terrorist organization determine when it’s convenient for them to fire at our cities, at our people, and when it’s not,” Netanyahu said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday." “We’ll take the necessary action to protect our people including, by the way, continuing to dismantle tunnels. That’s our policy.”

Netanyahu said Israeli forces have made progress in that effort. "I don’t think we’ll have a hundred percent success. I can’t guarantee that. But we’ll have major success. We already have achieved part of it," he said.

The conflict, now in its third week, has led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, 43 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians. In the blitz of Sunday TV interviews, Netanyahu acknowledged that the lopsided casualty count threatens Israel’s support in the international community.

But he placed blame for the civilian death toll on Hamas, not Israel. The organization, which he compared to the Al Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State, is placing “human shields” in the way of rockets, he said.

“We tell the civilians ‘Leave.’ Hamas tells them to stay. It wants to pile up these civilian casualties,” Netanyahu said. “Therefore it should be blamed and not Israel. That’s a simple truth and moral clarity that should not be lost.”

While concerns about the operation have been growing more vocal in Europe, the Obama administration has remained publicly supportive of Israel. Netanyahu on Sunday appealed to U.S. leaders to maintain “unequivocal” support.

“I think that unequivocal support is necessary if we’re going to have a successful conclusion to this operation,” Netanyahu said, arguing that Hamas can not be allowed to win the "propaganda war."

“On the other hand," he said, "if Hamas is condemned, if Hamas is weakened, discredited and demilitarized, I think that opens up the path for peace, which is something that Israel wants and something that the U.S. wants.”

Hamas also took to  the U.S. airwaves to make its case. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called on Israel to lift its 7-year-old blockade on Gaza, suggesting that was a precondition to a lasting cease-fire.

The conflict also demonstrates the need to “stop the occupation” of Gaza, he said in an excerpt of an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“In order to stop the bloodletting, we need to look at the underlying cause, we need to stop the occupation that doesn’t heed our rights,” he said.

Meshaal maintained that Hamas is not made up of “fanatics” or “fundamentalists” and said it supported religious tolerance, but he would not commit to recognizing the state of Israel, even if the occupation was ended.

“When we have a Palestinian state, then the Palestinian state will decide on its policies,” he said.

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