Israeli president Isaac Herzog has said that his country cannot leave a vacuum in Gaza and would have to maintain a “very strong force” in the coastal enclave for the near future to prevent Hamas re-emerging in the besieged strip.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Herzog said the government was discussing many ideas about how Gaza would be run once the war between Israel and Hamas ends, adding that he assumed the US and “our neighbours in the region” would have some involvement in the post-conflict order.
“If we pull back, then who will take over? We can’t leave a vacuum. We have to think about what will be the mechanism; there are many ideas that are thrown in the air,” Herzog said. “But no one will want to turn this place, Gaza, into a terror base again.”
Herzog’s comments come as international pressure mounts on Israel over the soaring death toll in Gaza and the deepening humanitarian crisis in the strip, which is home to 2.3mn people and has been controlled by Hamas since 2007.
Western officials are also concerned that Israel has no clear plan for what comes next in Gaza after vowing to eliminate Hamas, which is deeply embedded in Palestinian society and has political and military wings.
The Biden administration has said there might be a need for a transition period, but it has also warned Israel not to reoccupy the strip — from which it withdrew in 2005 — or to reduce the size of the territory with new security barriers or buffer zones.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously said Israel would maintain indefinite “overall security responsibility” over Gaza.
Herzog, who has no executive powers but is briefed on the war effort, said: “In order to prevent terror from coming up again, we have to have a very strong force to make sure that it’s committed enough and it [the attack] doesn’t happen [again].”
Herzog was speaking hours before Israeli forces launched a raid on al-Shifa hospital, the enclave’s largest medical facility, which is home to patients and thousands of Palestinians who have sought sanctuary from Israel’s bombardment.
The Israel Defense Forces described its raid on al-Shifa as a “precise and targeted operation” in a “specified area” of the hospital. The IDF accuses Hamas of using hospitals for military operations, and the White House on Tuesday supported Israel’s claims that Palestinian militants stored weapons in medical facilities.
Hamas has denied these claims. A spokesman for the government in Gaza described the raid on al-Shifa as a war crime.
The UN has said that the health system in Gaza has collapsed, with all but one of the hospitals in northern Gaza no longer functioning.
Asked about Israel’s military operations around hospitals, Herzog said: “We are doing it in a very, very cautious way.”
He also insisted that Israel was seeking to protect civilians.
Israeli forces launched an air and land offensive on Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 attack killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials, in its most ferocious ever assault on the strip.
More than 11,200 people have been killed in Israel’s bombardment, according to Palestinian health officials, and the UN says more than 1.5mn people have been displaced.
Israel has repeatedly ordered Palestinians to leave the densely populated north of Gaza, which is the focus of its military operations, and move south.
“I care about the Palestinian deaths . . . it breaks my heart,” Herzog said. “But I always remember, I have first and foremost [to ensure] the security to defend our people.”
Even Israel’s staunchest allies have raised concerns about the death toll in Gaza, with US secretary of state Antony Blinken saying last week that “far too many Palestinians have been killed”.
This week, French president Emmanuel Macron told the BBC that Israel must “stop the bombing”.
Herzog said Israel respected its allies and listened to the US “very carefully”. But he added that “at the end of the day, we have a duty to protect our people”.
The president said “first and foremost” Israel wanted to secure the release of about 240 hostages that Hamas captured during its October 7 attack on southern Israel.
He said the international community understands that, and supports Israel’s right to defend itself. But he said: “How do I have the right to defend myself if I cannot eradicate the military capabilities of Hamas? It’s right there. It’s right there in the [Gaza] city.”
Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political office, has been facilitating indirect talks between Israel and the militant group to secure a deal to release civilian hostages.
Herzog blamed Hamas for the lack of an agreement, saying “we haven’t even received one piece of information about our hostages”.
“So we have to fight and get them,” he said.
He said Israel, which has laid siege to Gaza and allowed only a limited amount of aid into the strip — triggering acute shortages of food, water and fuel — was working to allow more humanitarian assistance into the enclave.
Herzog added that the government was discussing “a major effort” with Cyprus to deliver aid via the sea, saying Cypriot officials would be visiting Israel on Thursday to follow up on the initiative.
“It’s under serious negotiations with the Cypriot government,” he said.
“It’s true there are areas in Gaza that are in a very dire situation. That’s because it’s a war zone,” he said. “But we are trying.”
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