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Netanyahu warns Israel’s offensive against Hamas ‘will take time’

Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Sunday that Israel’s biggest military offensive against Hamas in seven years would “take time” despite UN calls for a ceasefire.

Speaking to the nation after a security cabinet meeting, Israel’s prime minister also said the country would continue its military campaign against the Islamist group that controls the Gaza enclave “with full force.”

“There is talk about international pressure. There is always pressure but all in all we are receiving very serious backing, first of all from the US,” he said.

Israel’s security cabinet approved plans for the military to continue its operations in Gaza, according to local media. The military wants Hamas to return the bodies of two soldiers before it considers a long time truce, an Israeli government aide said earlier. Also at stake is the fate of two Israeli civilians held in Gaza, the aide said.

Netanyahu’s warning came as international efforts to de-escalate the crisis intensified after a seventh day of fighting. UN secretary-general António Guterres started a meeting of the 15-member security council in New York by calling on both sides “to allow mediation efforts to intensify and succeed.”

“Fighting must stop. It must stop. Rockets and mortars on one side, aerial bombardment on the other must stop,” he said, describing the hostilities as “utterly appalling.”

The death toll in Gaza stood at 192, including 92 women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Israel has reported 10 dead from the Hamas attacks, including two children.

Mediation by Egypt and Qatar to broker a ceasefire and allow fuel into Gaza failed on Sunday after Israel’s military struck the homes of Hamas leader Yahyeh Sinwar and his brother, according to an Egyptian diplomat briefed on talks. “It raises the temperatures significantly,” he said.

Sinwar was released from an Israeli prison in 2011 during a prisoner exchange and has since risen to the top of Hamas’s leadership. An Israeli official described him as “the biggest threat” to Israel from Gaza.

Hamas fired homemade rockets at Tel Aviv at around midnight on Saturday and at towns near the Gaza Strip on Sunday morning.

Gaza’s 2m residents have been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when Hamas won the elections. An Israeli official estimated that the enclave would run out of fuel by Monday at the latest. But on Sunday three UN trucks transporting fuel managed to reach Gaza’s only power plant, one western diplomat told the FT.

In a speech on Saturday, Netanyahu defended the biggest offensive against Hamas since Israel’s 2014 conflict with the Islamist group as a “just and moral war.” He added: “We are doing everything, but everything, to avoid or limit as much as possible harming civilians.”

Israel on Saturday destroyed the al-Jalaa residential and office block that hosted US news agency Associated Press and Qatari television network Al Jazeera. The bombing raised “concerns about the safety and security of journalists” and “reinforced the need to ensure their protection”, US president Joe Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call on Saturday, according to the White House.

A man walks past a destroyed building in a heavily damaged residential neighbourhood of Gaza City on Sunday
A destroyed building in a heavily damaged residential neighbourhood of Gaza City on Sunday © AFP via Getty Images

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli security forces killed 11 Palestinian protesters on Friday and more protests and clashes ensued. Two Palestinians were killed overnight, including one shot by Israeli forces in the abdomen.

The territory, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 war, is the seat of Fatah, Hamas’s rival Palestinian faction, and is home to about 650,000 Jewish settlers, including at least 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

Israel is also seeking to quell riots pitting Jews and Arabs across the country, arresting nearly 900 people.

Israeli Arabs account for about one-fifth of the Jewish state’s population, carry Israeli passports and have the right to vote, but they say they suffer discrimination.

The crisis erupted when police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades against Palestinian protesters in the compound of al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. More than 600 Palestinians were wounded.

The al-Aqsa mosque lies in a compound — known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount — that is sacred to both religions.

The Islamist group has launched over 2,900 rockets since Monday, according to Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. The Israeli Defence Force has conducted 1,500 strikes.

Additional reporting by Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong

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