Intense phase of Israel’s war with Hamas nearing end, says Netanyahu

<span>Benjamin Netanyahu said: ‘We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that.’</span><span>Photograph: Abir Sultan/AP</span>
Benjamin Netanyahu said: ‘We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that.’Photograph: Abir Sultan/AP

Israel’s prime minister has said the most intense phase of the assault against Hamas in Gaza is coming to an end, freeing up forces to move to the Lebanese border, where escalating exchanges of fire with the militant group Hezbollah have increased fears of a wider war.

In his first public interview with a Hebrew-language network outlet in more than eight months of conflict, broadcast on Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu also walked back on his commitment to a US-backed ceasefire proposal with Hamas, instead suggesting a more limited offer.

Later on Monday, however, Netanyahu insisted he was committed to the proposal.

Related: US ‘evaluating’ Hamas response to Gaza ceasefire proposal

Netanyahu made the remarks on Israel’s rightwing Channel 14 as the top US military officer warned of the risk that Iran would be drawn into a wider war with Hezbollah, threatening US forces in the region.

“We will have the possibility of transferring some of our forces north, and we will do that,” Netanyahu said in the interview, which was frequently interrupted by applause from a studio audience.

He said he hoped a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be found but vowed to solve the problem “in a different way” if needed. “We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that,” Netanyahu added.

The prime minister said the offensive in Gaza would have to continue with “mowing” operations – targeted strikes aimed at preventing Hamas from regrouping.

He suggested he was prepared “to make a partial deal [with Hamas] – this is no secret – that will return to us some of the people”, referring to the roughly 120 hostages still held in the Gaza Strip. “But we are committed to continuing the war after a pause, in order to complete the goal of eliminating Hamas. I’m not willing to give up on that,” he added.

Hamas later issued a statement saying Netanyahu’s position confirmed his rejection of the ceasefire proposal put forward by the US president, Joe Biden.

The group said its insistence that any deal should include a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces out of the Gaza Strip “was an inevitable necessity to block Netanyahu’s attempts of evasion, deception, and perpetuation of aggression and the war of extermination against our people”.

The connection between the two conflicts – between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and Israel and Hezbollah around the Lebanese border – has increasingly complicated the dynamics of a war on several fronts.

Hezbollah says an end to the war in Gaza is a precondition for it to end its firing and being open to negotiations, while Israel has said Hezbollah must withdraw from the Lebanese border as mandated by the UN security council resolution that ended the second Lebanese war in 2006.

The threat of an escalating conflict in the north, meanwhile, appears to have offered support to Hamas’s insistence that it will not agree to a ceasefire-for-hostages deal while Israeli troops are present in Gaza and offensive operations continue.

Netanyahu’s comments came amid stark warnings from international officials of the danger of the war in the north with Hezbollah rapidly spreading.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who is in Washington for talks with senior Biden administration officials, told the US presidential envoy, Amos Hochstein that a halt of Hezbollah firing would not satisfy Israel and that the group would need to withdraw a substantial distance from the border area.

Later on Monday Gallant was scheduled to meet the CIA director, William Burns, and then the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. He is due to meet the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, on Tuesday.

“The meetings we are holding are extremely important and impactful on the future of the war in Gaza and our ability to achieve the goals of the war, on developments on the northern border, and other areas,” Gallant said in a statement from Washington.

The Biden administration is keen to cultivate and promote Gallant, who US officials see as the most moderate figure left in Netanyahu’s cabinet. The Israeli minister posted a picture on the X social media platform of him boarding an official US plane which he implied had been laid on to take him from New York to Washington.

Blinken, Burns and Austin will all restate the administration’s opposition to a major offensive on Lebanon, which US officials believe would be disastrous for the region. US officials admit however the US was not able to persuade the Israeli government to hold back on its offensive on Rafah, to do more to spare civilian casualties or to allow significantly more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

The European foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said on Monday the conflict was close to expanding into Lebanon, days after Iran-backed Hezbollah threatened the EU member Cyprus.

“The risk of this war affecting the south of Lebanon and spilling over is every day bigger,” Borrell told reporters before a foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg. “We are on the eve of the war expanding.”

The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said the situation between Israel and Hezbollah was “more than worrying”, adding that she would travel to Lebanon soon. “A further escalation would be a catastrophe for people in the region,” she said.

Reinforcing the growing concern, the top US military officer, Gen Charles Brown, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, said Iran “would be more inclined to support Hezbollah”.

Netanyahu’s comments in his television interview were in sharp contrast to the outlines of the deal detailed by Biden late last month.

His remarks could further strain Israel’s ties with the US, its top ally, which launched a diplomatic push for the latest ceasefire proposal, including asking Arab countries to pressure Hamas – which Washington portrayed as the “holdout” – to accept.

The three-phase plan would bring about the release of the remaining hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. But disputes and mistrust persist between Israel and Hamas over how the deal plays out.

Hamas has insisted that it will not release the remaining hostages unless there is a permanent ceasefire and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. When Biden announced the latest proposal last month, he said it included both.

The families of hostages have grown increasingly impatient with Netanyahu, seeing his apparent reluctance to move ahead with a deal as tainted by political considerations. A group representing the families condemned the prime minister’s remarks, which it viewed as an Israeli rejection of the ceasefire proposal.

“This is an abandonment of the 120 hostages and a violation of the state’s moral duty toward its citizens,” the group said, noting that it held Netanyahu responsible for returning all the captives.