In an interview with VOA conducted via Skype on Sunday, the spokesperson of the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, said securing the release of all the hostages — who he said range in age from ten months to 88 years — is the country's top priority.
"The hostage issue is at the top of our priority," said Lerner, who said the number of Israeli and foreign nationals being held as hostages is now 241. "It is one of the missions of the war, of our efforts and we are operating on the ground, air, and at sea and utilizing all of the tools that we have."
To date, Hamas has released five hostages but has not offered an explanation about the wellbeing or whereabouts of the other hostages.
Israel's aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza has drawn outrage from Arab nations and human rights activists with some saying the deaths of civilians and cutting off water and electricity to Gazan citizens violates the laws of war. According to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza, more than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks. Lerner insists Israel is following proper guidelines.
"The IDF is operating based on principles of distinction, military necessity, proportionality, and weighing up the three of those components together in order to achieve our military goal," Lerner said.
"On of our main efforts in the last three weeks has been to evacuate people from harm’s way,” Lerner said, adding that they have “been encouraging people through text messages, through phone calls, through voice messages, through leaflets we’ve dropped from the sky, phoning people and encouraging them to leave the combat zone."
However, some Palestinians attempting to leave Gaza and Hamas officials have refuted this claim. They, instead, accused Israel of blocking exit routes and leaving them stranded in a war zone.
Israel has justified its bombing by saying that Hamas fighters have embedded themselves among civilians in places like hospitals and refugee shelters, making civilians casualties of war. Lerner said, while they don't intentionally target civilians, it is hard to avoid them and blamed Hamas for creating the situation.
"Our goal is to try and limit the civilian casualties as the operation proceeds. It is an unfortunate reality of warfare," he said. However, he emphasized that Israel was forced to take action following the surprise attack by Hamas. "But we need to remember we did not ask for this war. We did not plan on going to war so much so that the idea actually failed the people of Israel because we were working under the assumption that Hamas doesn’t want to have a war with us."
Asked whether there were Israeli intelligence failures leading up to the October 7 attacks, Lerner said that was partly correct.
"Indeed, the intelligence failure was on a strategic level, to begin with. And that influenced all of the processes beneath that strategic level. If we have the working assumption that Hamas isn’t going to or isn’t attempting to go to war with Israel, that determines all of the, I would say, assets, efforts, components, the gathering that in the end influenced the amount of forces that you have on the ground on that Saturday, that terrible Saturday, 4 weeks ago."
Lerner pledged the surprise attacks of that day would not be repeated. He pointed to a destruction of Hamas infrastructure including command-and-control positions, the rocket launchers, and explosive drone capabilities.
"It's a process that will end in the defeat of Hamas as a governing authority. We’re determined to do it. And as I said, we really don’t have any other choice. There is no way that Israel can go back to the situation of October 6th, the day the day before," Lerner said.
As for fear of igniting a fight with Lebanon and Hezbollah, Lerner said Israel is not planning to expand its fight to Lebanon. "We are very focused on what's happening on the border with Gaza. We want to remain and achieve our mission there. That is why we’re not looking to expand the confrontation with Hezbollah in the North."
But during a speech on November 3, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said they have been involved since Hamas attacked Israel. "I am telling you; we have been engaged in this battle since October 8," Nasrallah said. "The Islamic resistance in Lebanon started operation the very next day."
Lerner said Israel's response should serve as a warning to militants attempting to enter the conflict on Hamas’ behalf.
"I would say Hezbollah needs to decide, are they working for Iran or the people of Lebanon? I would say to the government of Lebanon, you need to take charge of what’s happening in the South and prevent Hezbollah from escalating the situation because Lebanon has a lot to lose if this deteriorates, and to Hezbollah, I say look very carefully how we are dismantling and destroying Hamas in Gaza and think very carefully if you want to cross that threshold."