Netanyahu vows to invade Rafah “with or without” ceasefire agreement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed again on Tuesday to launch an invasion into the southern Gaza Strip, even as a renewed push for a ceasefire deal showed glimmers of a potential breakthrough.

After seven months of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the United States, Qatar and several other countries hope to broker a ceasefire, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is visiting the Middle East to push for a agreement.

But with Hamas arguing that any deal should include an end to the war, and with right-wing politicians in Israel threatening to leave the ruling coalition if the long-planned incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah is delayed , Netanyahu said Israel reserved the right to continue fighting.

“The idea of ​​stopping the war before achieving all its objectives is out of the question,” he said at a meeting with the families of hostages held in Gaza, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without an agreement – ​​to achieve total victory.”

Netanyahu's comments came a day before his meeting with Blinken, who, along with other Biden administration officials, has been pressuring Israel to avoid a major assault on Rafah in order to minimize civilian casualties. The war has already killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, Gaza health officials say.

In a press briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman John F. Kirby made clear that the United States remains opposed to an Israeli strike against Hamas in Rafah without a significant plan to protect civilians, which American officials say they have not view.

“In terms of what's in the public domain coming out of the prime minister's office, you guys should talk to him and his team about that rhetoric and the reasoning behind it,” Kirby said. “All I can say is that we don't want to see a big ground operation in Rafah. That hasn't changed.

Although Israeli officials have repeatedly said they want to move into Rafah, which they describe as Hamas's last stronghold, they appeared to have made concessions over the weekend aimed at securing a ceasefire agreement.

The Israelis have said they are willing to delay the invasion if it means freedom for hostages seized during the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, and have indicated they are prepared to settle for an initial release of fewer hostages than how many would have predicted. he had been demanding. For weeks they had been insisting on the release of 40 hostages, but in a new offer they said they would accept 33.

Earlier in the week, Blinken, calling Israel's revised offer “extraordinarily generous,” said the burden of accepting a deal now falls on Hamas. On Tuesday, Kirby said the administration was waiting for a response.

“This is a very good proposal and Hamas should seize it and time is of the essence,” he said.

But Netanyahu's comments about the Rafah invasion have created new uncertainty over whether there will be a truce. It is unclear whether the threat of invasion may be a tactic intended to pressure Hamas or please hardliners in the prime minister's coalition.

In Rafah both sides appeared to be preparing for a major military operation.

In anticipation of an Israeli ground offensive, some families moved north to areas of Gaza where fighting had taken place early in the war.

Among them was Mohammed Foara and his family, who had to move for the fifth time in seven months. Early in the war, their eldest son was killed in an airstrike in Nuseirat, central Gaza.

“I fear for them more and more,” Foara said of her four surviving children.

Blinken, who is on his seventh trip to the Middle East since the Oct. 7 attack that Israel says killed 1,200 people, discussed the proposed ceasefire deal during meetings in Saudi Arabia on Monday. On Tuesday he visited Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II to discuss the proposal, as well as Jordan's humanitarian contributions to Gaza.

The secretary of state visited a warehouse where workers were loading trucks for the first attempt to send medical and food aid overland from Jordan to the Israel-Gaza border crossing at Erez. He praised the start of the new aid corridor and said a pier built by the US military to bring aid to the Gaza coast by sea would be operational in about a week.

Blinken and his aides have sought to work on a range of issues in the region, including continuing the flow of US weapons to Israel, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a political solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In talks with Jordanian officials, Blinken was also expected to address issues related to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Mr. Blinken later left for Tel Aviv.

The Biden administration has raised the prospect of the authority, seen by many Palestinians as authoritarian and corrupt, helping to govern post-war Gaza, an idea the Israeli government opposes. Jordanian officials have close ties to Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the authority, and other prominent Palestinians in the organization.

Hamas officials and the political faction that controls the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, with which Hamas has long competed for power in Gaza and the West Bank, met recently in Beijing for what Lin Jian, spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry , described Tuesday as “candid and in-depth talks on promoting intra-Palestinian reconciliation.”

Mr Lin said the two sides agreed to continue dialogue. Representatives of Fatah and Hamas also met in February in Russia without any clear progress towards a unified government.

Peter Baker AND Joy Dong contributed to the reporting.

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