Israel Defense Forces spokesman speaks about the latest fighting in Gaza as Hamas broke the cease-fire, and the priority of freeing the remaining 137 hostages
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner as intense fighting has resumed. Lerner speaks of the challenges ahead as goals remain to dismantle Hamas and free all remaining hostages.
TML: Lt. Col. Peter Lerner is joining me today, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, to talk about where the war is, what’s happening in Gaza, and thank you for being here.
Lt. Col. Lerner: Thank you very much.
TML: The cease-fire was discontinued, and my first question is why.
Lt. Col. Lerner: Right, putting it quite simply, Hamas decided not to release 17 women and children and that led to the decision of the government to remobilize. Before we had re-engaged, Hamas started firing rockets at us. So, basically they made a decision not to hand over the hostages and to therefore resume the combat, and that is indeed what we’re doing, up until these hours.
TML: The Arabic spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces just came out with a very strong message, and it was for a particular battalion, to tell them to either hand over weapons or we’re coming in, you’ll come to the same defeat as some of the others, leaders of Hamas. Can you elaborate on what’s happening there?
Lt. Col. Lerner: So, of course, we are engaging the enemy wherever they are. We’re doing it by various means and indeed, telling them to surrender is indeed part of that effort. Of course, we don’t expect them to do so, so we are preparing ourselves for different activities: engaging the enemy, taking them out, wherever they are—in the tunnels, in their command positions, in the locations where they’ve chosen to hide themselves, which are, I would say. mostly within the civilian arena.
From our perspective, though, we are, I would say, determined to seek them out, hunt them down, and pursue them, wherever they are.
Fate of the Bibas family
TML: The Bibas family is utmost on many people’s minds. The first question, of course, is are they alive? There were many reports coming out, even from Hamas, saying that they weren’t.
Lt. Col. Lerner: So the Bibas family, but not only the Bibas family. Also, there are 137 hostages still being held by Hamas. And we are concerned for the well-being of all of them. That is precisely the reason we have demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross have access to assess their well-being, all of their situations.
We can’t confirm at this stage what Hamas said, and I’d be very cautious in accepting anything that Hamas says to begin with. Of course, you know, we’re utilizing our intelligence in order to try and determine their situation. I don’t have anything to report at this stage.
TML: Different numbers have been floating in terms of how many women are left, and children. Can you just verify that?
Lt. Col. Lerner: The numbers we have include 17 women and children.
TML: Does that change anything? The women that came out, they talked about what they went through. They were able to give information now in terms of how they were treated. Does this concern you, that the hostages that are left are facing a more dire situation as the days keep going forward?
Lt. Col. Lerner: We have very, very low expectations of Hamas to begin with. Indeed, some of the stories that are coming out are heartbreaking, heart-wrenching, and extremely concerning. This is precisely the reason why the hostage issue is a top national priority. This is precisely the reason why the IDF held its fire in order to bring home so many hostages. And this is precisely the reason why we will not stop until we have achieved our goals and brought back every single hostage, every last one of them.
That will work hand in hand, that goal, with the other operational goal, which is to dismantle and destroy Hamas as a governing authority of the Gaza Strip. They can no longer have the power of government. We’ve seen what they do with that power. They build terrorist armies; they equip themselves with explosive drones and build huge amounts of rocket capabilities that can cover almost the entire state of Israel.
So, from our perspective, of course, there are two goals of this—two operational goals of this war: first of all to bring home the hostages, and second of all to dismantle and disrupt, destroy Hamas from being a government, governing authority in the Gaza Strip. And finally, that will result in the third goal, which Prime Minister Netanyahu mentions, is restoring and creating a better security situation for the people of Israel, in the south and beyond.
TML: Have any of the hostages given information that it will help for you to rescue those that are still remaining in Gaza?
Lt. Col. Lerner: Well, I don’t want to go into specifics about what the hostages are sharing. Of course, they all—they all are traumatized from different levels and have different experiences and different understandings of what’s going on. Of course, we are conducting our intelligence efforts and are engaging and listening but I would say it has to be only part of the puzzle. I think it is most important that we be very, very cautious around the issue of hostages, also in what they’re sharing publicly from what, what they’ve seen, what they’ve endured. From our perspective, it remains and is a national priority. The IDF is—will go, I would say, to every extent in order to achieve our goal, utilize operational capabilities and intelligence capabilities in order to bring home the hostages.
TML: Lt. Col. Lerner, one of the problems that happens with a cease-fire is there’s a concern there’ll be a deficit in terms of the army’s ability to maneuver. And likewise, what is Hamas gaining from this? So, what are the benefits and deficits?
Lt. Col. Lerner: So, from our perspective, the operational cause was a very clear statement that we regard the lives of the hostages very highly. And therefore even at the risk that Hamas can regroup, it is a worthwhile pause to conduct. And that is indeed the instructions we received from the government based on the interest of bringing home the hostages.
While we were holding our fire, we were extensively studying and learning the lessons from the prior six weeks to the operational pause, studying the enemy, engaging, restocking, resupplying, gaining some rest. And we have to work on the assumption that Hamas was doing the same.
I can’t say that anything they have is a real, I would say, threat to us. Of course, there are plenty of challenges that Hamas have and pose from an Israeli perspective. But our military is strong. We have tools and capabilities. We have technology and know-how. And I would also say we are very, very determined to make sure that what happened on Oct. 7 can never happen again.
TML: Before the fighting resumed, the United States, and in particular Secretary of State Blinken gave a list of expectations that they are seeking from Israel as they go back to war, particularly in terms of aid, humanitarian aid that’s going in. Can you talk to what is entering Gaza at the moment, after the cease-fire?
Lt. Col. Lerner: So, the humanitarian effort, as we understand it, goes hand in hand with the operational effort. That is why even before the cease-fire there was a flow of humanitarian supplies. And indeed, during the operational pause, we increased that supply. And in the aftermath, since Friday, we have resumed humanitarian aid, primarily medical supplies, food supplies, water supplies, into the Gaza Strip.
We understand that the humanitarian effort goes hand in hand with the operational effort. And I say that because we—the people of Gaza are not the enemy of Israel. We would continue, as we did prior to the operational pause, to ensure the flow of humanitarian supplies. In the pause, in the operational pause, the flow was increased in order to meet various needs. And indeed, that, those—the supplies that came in were extensive in medical supplies, food supplies, water supplies. And I would say also, as the operational pause ended, we continued to bring in and have access of more supplies of that kind. Precisely because the people of Gaza are not our enemy. Hamas is the enemy, and I would say Hamas is the enemy of all decent people.
TML: Is it possible to fight effectively knowing that the United States is putting on certain stipulations?
Lt. Col. Lerner: We are very attentive to what the US administration and our American military counterparts are sharing with us. They’re sharing it out of concern and out of the lessons that they’ve learned from their similar situations around the world that they’ve faced. Of course, we are determined and our message is very clear that—and I would say, it is exactly in sync with what the administration is echoing—Hamas have to go.
We will do everything we can in order to minimize civilian casualties. We will do everything we can to get civilians out of harm’s way. We will do everything we can in order to create and ensure the humanitarian mission continues, despite the war. But at the end of the day, it is a war, a war that we have no choice, a war that we did not plan for, a war that we were surprised on Oct. 7. And it’s a war that we are intending on winning and defeating the enemy.
TML: Turn to the other borders for a moment. At least 17 missiles and rockets have attacked US assets. So who’s responsible for that, the US or Israel, in terms of response?
Lt. Col. Lerner: I can’t really—Felice, I can’t really talk about what happens on US assets. That would be well beyond my responsibility.
TML: The tunnels continue to be part of the mission. Can you elaborate further on how deep they go, how far you are prepared to go to try to dismantle the tunnel infrastructure that for years has been sitting there operative?
Lt. Col. Lerner: The tunnel system, the tunnel network, which was built by Hamas and is probably the most expensive, vast construction project ever to exist in the Gaza Strip—it was built by Hamas at the expense of the people of Gaza. Under their houses, under their hospitals, under their schools. It is—there are hundreds of kilometers of tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip. Indeed, they vary in width and depth, anything from a few meters beneath the, beneath ground, to use them as rocket-launching positions, or tens of meters beneath ground as, for bunkers and command control positions.
Indeed, we understand that that is a huge challenge for the military, but we are determined. Over the last 10 years, the IDF has developed techniques and technology to deal with the tunnel threat. I would say there are many advantages to being in a tunnel. But there are also many disadvantages, because that tunnel can quite easily become a death trap.
So, from our perspective we are determined to make sure—and hundreds of tunnel access points have been destroyed in the last seven weeks by the IDF. We will continue to dismantle the tunnel network and use it for our advantage. And whenever they, terrorists, come out of a tunnel, they will meet IDF guns. They will meet IDF soldiers. And we are determined to make sure that what they think was an advantage for them will be a disadvantage.
TML: By the same token, they are holding some of the hostages in the tunnels. So, how do you maneuver that?
Lt. Col. Lerner: The presence of hostages obviously reflects and influences our operational plan. We are very cautious and careful. But at the same time, when we weigh up what we are doing, we are taking that into consideration. And, and yes, I would say, as I said, the presence of hostages is a concern and national priority, a defense priority. We will do everything we can to bring them back.
TML: The border fence that was infiltrated has now been fixed to some extent. How secure is that at the moment and what are the plans so that people can come back home?
Lt. Col. Lerner: I think, first of all, for people to come back home, they need to feel that it is safe and secure, and it’s not just about the fence. I think they expect from Israel to dismantle Hamas and make sure that Gaza is not run by a terrorist entity. That is, I think, what we can expect. That is what they expect from us, and that is what we expect to—we are expected to deliver.
TML: My last question right now has to do with getting to the leaders of Hamas. Don’t you feel that if Qatar is saying stay away from attacking the leaders in Qatar, and others are saying the same, how far can you go in dismantling Hamas?
Lt. Col. Lerner: Well, the IDF chief of staff said very clearly that Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind of the massacre of Oct. 7, and all of his henchmen beneath him, they are fair game. From our perspective, and we announced yesterday of another battalion commander that we killed, in Shejaiya. We will take them out, pursue them, engage them, and make sure they never have the power of death in order to kill Israelis again.
TML: Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, thank you so much for your time with The Media Line.
Lt. Col. Lerner: Thank you, Felice.