Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated Saturday night that Operation Protective Edge in Gaza will continue "for as much time as necessary," despite earlier reports indicating that some IDF forces may be withdrawing. The Prime Minister explained that some troops are being distanced from civilian areas where the IDF has achieved its objectives to prevent unnecessary friction.
"From the beginning, we promised to return the quiet to Israel's citizens and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved. We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed," he said in a public address.
Netanyahu also addressed the bereaved families; sixty-three soldiers have been killed since Operation Protective Edge began 26 days ago.
"I hurt with the bereaved families and send them my condolences and the condolences of the Jewish people," he said. "They sacrificed their lives and they fell to defend our country, our home. My heart and the entire nation's hearts are with each and every one of them. I have personaly experienced how they feel."
Netanyahu addressed the family of Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on Friday, vowing to do whatever can be done to find Hadar. He promised to speak to them personally this evening.
Meanwhile, he thanked Israeli citizens for "your uniformity, strength, and unity" and promised to "restore calm to Israel."
"We have the strong support of the US and Europe, which is an important achievement for Israel," he continued. "It will strengthen our mission to demilitarize, disarm and reconstruct the Gaza Strip."
"We have nothing against the uninvolved people of Gaza, we regret every civilian killed," he added.
Netanyahu also intimated that Israel has formed closer bonds with some of its neighboring countries over the latest round of fighting, a positive result of the operation which also saw Hamas blamed by much of the international community for breaking a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire arrangement.
"No less important, and certainly surprising to many, is the unique relationship formed with countries in the region," Netanyahu said, noting that "this, too is a very important asset for Israel."
"After the hostilities and the end of the campaign it will open many possibilities," he said. "It's obvious what is happening here. Hamas wants to blame Israel for the suffering of Gazans. The world understands who Hamas is [now], the organization that, together with Qatar, led John Kerry and Obama to be fooled."
"Unfortunately there are also different voices, to them I say: terrorism has no borders - today they threaten the State of Israel and tomorrow they will go after other countries," he continued. "What will you do with them then? Will you stand with Israel?"
Referring to reports that the IDF has said it has destroyed nearly all Hamas tunnels, and will complete the destruction of the rest in the coming days, the Prime Minister said that this was what is being done in Gaza, but that "Israeli geniuses are already coming up with answers to both the tunnel and mortar fire challenges that can be employed from within Israel". He added that he cannot elaborate on that at present.
Operation Protective Edge - What next?
Earlier, the Israeli army on Saturday informed residents of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza that it was "safe" to return to their homes, as troops began withdrawing from the area.
"Messages have been conveyed to residents of the northern Gaza Strip that they may return to the Beit Lahiya area," an army statement said, with a spokeswoman indicating the message had been relayed to authorities in the Islamist-ruled enclave.
"They have been informed it is safe for civilians to return to Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra," the spokeswoman told AFP, in what was understood to be a confirmation that troops had stopped operating there.
Witnesses in Al-Atatra, which is part of Beit Lahiya, reported seeing troops pulling back, in a move mirrored in the south, where residents said the soldiers had withdrawn from villages east of Khan Yunis, close to the Israeli border.
The announcement came amid reports that Israel would not be sending a delegation to truce talks in Cairo, with some suggesting the pullback could signal the start of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal which the Prime Minister denied.
Hamas, for its part, has said it will not necessarily be bound by any unilateral Israeli ceasefire.
"If the occupation unilaterally withdraws, the battle field would decide the response. We're not going to be obligated to anything," said Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri.
While the IAF is hitting targets in Gaza, the IDF is continuing its search for IDF Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, feared abducted in a Hamas attack in which a suicide bomber killed two other soldiers and breached a 72-hour ceasefire which had begun earlier on Friday.