Home International Israel will enter Rafah with or without Gaza hostage deal, says Netanyahu

Israel will enter Rafah with or without Gaza hostage deal, says Netanyahu

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Israel will carry out an operation against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah regardless of whether or not a ceasefire and hostage release deal is reached, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

Israeli military vehicles are parked near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, April 30, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams and Nidal Al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM – Israel will carry out an operation against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah regardless of whether or not a ceasefire and hostage release deal is reached, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all its objectives is out of the question,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office.

Expectations that a ceasefire agreement could be in sight have grown in recent days following a renewed push led by Egypt to revive stalled negotiations between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s ruling Palestinian Islamist group.

However Netanyahu said that with or without a deal, Israel intended to pursue the operation to destroy the remaining Hamas combat formations in Rafah, where more than one million Gaza Palestinians displaced from their homes amid Israeli military operations elsewhere since October have been seeking shelter.

“We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal, in order to achieve total victory,” he said in a statement.

Earlier, a person close to Netanyahu said Israel has been waiting for Hamas to respond to the latest ceasefire proposals tabled by Egypt, one of several foreign mediators, before sending a team to Cairo to continue talks.

With US Secretary of State Antony Blinken due to arrive in Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening following a visit to Riyadh to help nurture a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, pressure has been building for an agreement to stop the war that has devastated Gaza as it nears the end of its seventh month.

But so far there has been little sign of agreement on the most fundamental difference between the two sides – the Hamas demand that any deal must ensure a withdrawal of troops and a permanent end to the Israeli operation in Gaza.

“We can’t tell our people the occupation will stay or the fight will resume after Israel regains its prisoners,” said a Palestinian official from a group allied with Hamas. “Our people want this aggression to end.”

For Netanyahu, any move is likely to be affected by divisions in his coalition cabinet between ministers pressing to bring home at least some of the 133 Israeli hostages left in Gaza, and hardliners insisting on the long-promised assault on remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah.

‘LAST CHANCE’

But Israeli officials have said the operation could be deferred if Hamas accepts the deal on offer – which includes no definitive ceasefire but the return of 33 vulnerable hostages – women, children and those in frail health – in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners and a limited pause in the fighting.

“As far as Israel is concerned, this is the last chance to hold off a Rafah sweep. The IDF has already started mobilising troops for that operation,” said a second Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

The Israeli military said two divisions which left Gaza last week were refitting and repairing equipment and holding training and operational assessment exercises in preparation for continued operations in the enclave.

“The commanders of the divisions have completed the approval of plans for upcoming missions and are now continuing to enhance readiness in all areas and in training,” the military said.

Netanyahu’s position has been complicated by talk that the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be preparing arrest warrants for himself and other senior Israeli leaders on charges related to the conduct of the war.

The ICC has so far said nothing to confirm the speculation, which prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to warn Israeli embassies abroad to bolster their security.

But it underlined fears in Israel of growing isolation over the fighting in Gaza, which has caused mounting international alarm at the scale of destruction, the risk of famine and the prospect of a slide into a wider regional conflict. Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the war.

The Israeli campaign – launched after Hamas-led gunmen burst through the border on October 7 and rampaged through nearby communities, killing some 1,200 Israelis and foreigners and taking 253 into captivity – has so far killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health authorities there.

– REUTERS

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