Dermer: Israel will enter Rafah ‘even if entire world turns on us, including the US’

As Netanyahu aides head to Washington to discuss potential tactics in southern Gaza city, minister stresses ‘we’re going to fight until the battle’s won’

File - Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
File - Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

REUTERS — Israel will take control of Rafah even if it causes a rift with the United States, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday, describing the Gazan city packed with evacuees as a final Hamas bastion harboring a quarter of the terror group’s fighters.

The prospect of tanks and troops storming Rafah worries Washington, which says Israeli must have a plan to move more than a million Palestinians who have sheltered there since being displaced from elsewhere in the Gaza Strip during the five-month-old war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to ensure civilian evacuation and humanitarian aid — measures that top Israeli aides are due to discuss in the White House in the coming days at the behest of US President Joe Biden.

“We’re quite confident that we can do this in a way that would be effective — not only militarily, but also on the humanitarian side. And they have less confidence that we can do it,” one of those Israeli envoys, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, told the podcast “Call Me Back with Dan Senor.”

Dermer, a former ambassador to the United States, said Israel would hear out American ideas for Rafah, but that the city on Gaza’s border with Egypt would be taken whether or not the allies reach agreement:

“It will happen even if Israel is forced to fight alone. Even if the entire world turns on Israel, including the United States, we’re going to fight until the battle’s won.”

Palestinian girls walk on a sand dune at a camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

As fighting raged in northern Gaza, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo for talks with Arab officials about a proposed temporary ceasefire. Israel is open to a truce that will allow the release of hostages, but has ruled out ending the war with Hamas still in power.

Dermer said leaving the Iran-backed Islamists standing would invite open-ended attacks against Israel from across the region: “And that’s why the determination to take them out is so strong, even if it leads to a potential breach with the United States.”

He and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi are expected to fly to Washington in the coming days to discuss the continuation of the war on Hamas with Biden administration officials.

While backing Israel’s war goals, the US administration has been shaken by the toll on Palestinian civilians and particularly the growing humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

The offensive has killed almost 32,000 Palestinians, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said, without providing a breakdown of civilians and combatants. Israel says at least 13,000 are fighters. Hamas killed around 1,200 people in Israel on October 7 and abducted 253.

Hamas does not detail its losses or deployments and has dismissed Israel’s assessments as exaggerations. Palestinian rocket salvoes have tapered off dramatically as most of Gaza has been overrun by Israeli forces. So have Israeli military losses, which number 252 since the start of the ground operation in late October.

Dermer said there were four intact Hamas battalions in Rafah, bolstered by gunmen who had retreated from other parts of Gaza, amounting to 25% of the group’s prewar strength.

“We’re not going to leave a quarter of them in place,” he said. “We’re going into Rafah because we have to… And I think what people don’t understand is that October 7 is an existential moment for Israel.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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