Israel to press on with Rafah assault plan: Netanyahu


Israeli officials say Rafah residents will be allowed to leave when an operation starts in the city.
Israeli officials say Rafah residents will be allowed to leave when an operation starts in the city.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will keep on with the military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, where aid agencies say famine is looming, while ceasefire talks were set to resume.

Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel would push into Rafah, the last relatively safe place in the tiny, crowded Gaza enclave after more than five months of war, despite international pressure for Israel to avoid civilian casualties.

“We will operate in Rafah. This will take several weeks, and it will happen,” he said, without clarifying if he meant the assault would last for weeks or would begin in weeks.

Netanyahu later said after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem that Israel would not leave civilians trapped in Rafah when its forces begin their assault.

Israel’s allies have piled pressure on Netanyahu not to attack Rafah, where more than a million displaced people from other parts of the devastated enclave have sought shelter, without a plan to protect civilians.

In Washington, at a St Patrick’s Day event at the White House with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, US President Joe Biden stressed the need to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza and get a ceasefire deal that brings Hamas-led hostages home. Biden said a move towards a two-state solution was “the only path for lasting peace and security”.

Varadkar said the people of Gaza desperately needed food, medicine and shelter. “Most especially, they need the bombs to stop. This has to stop on both sides, the hostages brought home, and humanitarian relief allowed in,” he said.

Varadkar said Israel must reverse its “precipitous” decision to authorise a land incursion into Rafah.

At a joint news conference with Netanyahu, Scholz said he had spoken with the Israeli leader about the need to provide comprehensive humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“We cannot stand by and watch Palestinians risk starvation,” he said, echoing a call from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, visiting neighbouring Egypt at the same time, for a ceasefire deal and more aid for Gaza.

“It is critical to achieve an agreement on a ceasefire rapidly now that frees (Israel’s) hostages and allows more humanitarian aid to reach Gaza,” von der Leyen said after meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu had hit out at his allies, saying: “Are your memories that short? Have you so quickly forgotten October 7, the most horrific massacre of Jews since the Holocaust? Are you so quick to deny Israel the right to defend itself against the Hamas monsters?”.

Speaking to Fox News, Netanyahu said a Palestinian state would be “the greatest reward for terrorism in history.”

“Hamas had a de-facto Palestinian state in Gaza. And what did they use it for? To massacre Israelis and the worst savagery that was meted on Jews since the Holocaust,” he said.

Hamas fighters killed 1200 people and seized 253 hostages in the October 7 attack according to Israeli tallies, triggering a massive assault on Gaza.

Israel’s air and ground campaign since has killed more than 31,600 people say health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza. It has also driven most of the population from their homes, and brought people to the brink of famine, aid agencies say.

Displaced people gather to collect food in Rafah
Aid agencies have warned that pockets of the Gaza Strip face famine amid the Israel-Hamas conflict. (EPA PHOTO)

A source familiar with truce talks in Qatar told Reuters the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency would join the delegation attending the negotiations with Qatari, Egyptian and US mediators.

Hamas presented a new ceasefire proposal last week including an exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. Israel’s security cabinet is to meet to discuss it before the delegation leaves.

Netanyahu has already said the proposal was based on “unrealistic demands”, but a Palestinian official familiar with mediation efforts said chances for a deal looked better with Hamas having given more details on the proposed prisoner swap.

“Some in Israel felt (Hamas) made some improvement on its previous position and it is now in the hands of Netanyahu alone to say whether an agreement is imminent,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Hospitals in the north have already reported children dying of malnutrition and dehydration.