Netanyahu vows to invade Rafah ‘with or without a deal’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to launch an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering from the war.

His vow came just as ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas appear to be gaining steam.

Mr Netanyahu’s comments also came hours before US secretary of state Antony Blinken was due to arrive in Israel to advance the truce talks – which appear to be one of the most serious rounds of negotiations between Israel and Hamas since the war began.

The deal is meant to free hostages, bring some relief to the population and avert an Israeli offensive into Rafah and the potential harm to civilians in the city.

His comments appeared to be meant to appease his nationalist governing partners but it was not clear whether they would have any bearing on any emerging deal with Hamas.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Mr Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’s battalions there – with or without a deal, to achieve the total victory.”

The US has repeatedly said it opposes the Rafah operation until Israel presents a credible plan for evacuating and protecting the estimated 1.5 million people seeking shelter in the city.

Mr Blinken, speaking in Jordan before flying to Israel, said the “focus” right now is on improving the humanitarian situation and reaching a ceasefire deal that brings Israeli hostages home.

“No more delays. No more excuses. The time to act is now,” he said. “We want to see in the coming days this agreement coming together.”

Mr Netanyahu has faced pressure from his governing partners not to proceed with a deal that might prevent Israel from invading Rafah. His government could be threatened if he agrees to a deal because hardline cabinet members have demanded an attack on Rafah.

Mr Netanyahu met on Tuesday with one of those partners, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, according to the minister’s office, who said Mr Netanyahu promised him that “Israel will enter Rafah, promised that we are not stopping the war and promised that there won’t be a reckless deal”.

With more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people sheltering in Rafah, the international community, including Israel’s top ally the United States, has warned Israel against any offensive that puts civilians at risk.

Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday was addressing the Tikva Forum, a small group of families of hostages that is distinct from the main group representing the families of captive Israelis.

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Millions of Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah (Hatem Ali/AP)

Mr Netanyahu’s coalition is made up of ultranationalist and conservative religious parties, and critics of the Israeli leader say his decision-making during the war has been driven by political considerations rather than national interests, a charge Mr Netanyahu denies.

His government could collapse if one of the parties opposed to a deal pulls out, a scenario Mr Netanyahu would try to avoid considering his support has plummeted in opinion polls since the war began, although it has seen a slight gradual uptick.

Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionist party, said on Monday that he was seeking “total annihilation” of Israel’s enemies, appearing to refer to Hamas, in a recorded portion of his remarks at an event marking the end of the Passover holiday which were aired in Israeli media.

“You can’t do half a job,” he said.

The current deal being discussed, brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar, would see the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for a six-week halt in fighting as part of an initial phase, according to an Egyptian official and Israeli media.

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More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed over the course of the seven-month war (Mohammad Jahjouh/AP)

Mr Blinken, who was meeting with regional leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan before landing in Tel Aviv later on Tuesday, urged Hamas on Monday to accept the latest proposal, calling it “extraordinarily generous” on Israel’s part.

But a sticking point remains over what happens next. Hamas has demanded assurances that an eventual release of all hostages will bring a complete end to Israel’s nearly seven-month assault in Gaza and a withdrawal of its troops from the devastated territory.

Israel has offered only an extended pause, vowing to resume its offensive once the first phase of the deal is over. The issue has repeatedly obstructed efforts by the mediators during months of talks.

The Israel-Hamas war was sparked by the unprecedented October 7 raid into southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. Israel says the militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

The war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials. The war has driven around 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes, caused vast destruction in several towns and cities and pushed northern Gaza to the brink of famine.

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