Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking publicly about Gaza for the first time since a cease-fire began after four weeks of violence, voiced sadness about casualties while emphasizing that his country was not at fault.
He put the blame for Palestinian civilian deaths squarely on Hamas, saying the group intentionally uses innocent people as human shields.
“It is very important to understand what kind of conditions our forces are facing,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem, displaying footage that he said showed Hamas mortars being fired and tunnels dug from civilian areas, near schools and mosques. “The goal of Operation Protective Edge was and remains to protect Israeli civilians.”
“Israel deeply regrets every civilian casualty, every single one. The people of Gaza are not our enemy,” he said. “Our enemy is Hamas.”
“Hamas must be prevented from re-arming,” he said, adding that this is the way to make sure the situation will not repeat.
Netanyahu defended Israel’s actions as justified and proportional.
“Let’s imagine your country attacked by 3,500 rockets. Your territories infiltrated by death squads. What would you do? What would you demand your government do to protect you and your family?” he said. “What if the rockets are fired from civilian areas … should you then not take action?”
“This is a testing period now,” he said. “Can we accept a situation where terrorists can be exonerated and their victims accused?”
Several previous cease-fires broke down in violence, but a new 72-hour truce began Tuesday.
Nearly 1,900 Palestinians were killed in the last month, about 400 children among them, according to the estimates of Palestinian officials and human rights groups. Already feeble infrastructure was smashed and about 400,000 people — nearly a quarter of the territory's population — were displaced by fighting.
On the Israeli side, civilian deaths over the last month could be counted on one hand: three, including a foreign farmworker. But in a country where army service remains an instrument of national solidarity, the deaths of 64 troops amounted to military loss on a scale not seen in nearly a decade.
Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and staff writer Laura King in Gaza City contributed to this report.
For more news about the Middle East and beyond, follow @raablauren on Twitter.