'War now, peace later'

Gantz: Israel will launch Rafah offensive if hostages not returned by Ramadan

War cabinet minister says ‘to those saying the price is too high, Hamas has a choice — they can surrender’; warns Israel is ready ‘to wage a war in Lebanon’ as well

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If hostages held in Gaza are not freed within the next few weeks, Israel will broaden its offensive in southern Gaza and push into the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned on Sunday.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know — if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area,” Gantz said.

The holy Muslim month of Ramadan begins this year on March 10.

“We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimize civilian casualties,” the former IDF chief of staff and defense minister told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as they convened in Jerusalem.

“To those saying the price [of an offensive] is too high, I say this very clearly: Hamas has a choice — they can surrender, release the hostages, and the citizens of Gaza will be able to celebrate the holy holiday of Ramadan,” he said.

Rafah, which sits on the Gaza-Egypt border, is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the enclave, but it is also where over a million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

US President Joe Biden has warned Netanyahu that a military incursion “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support” of the city’s civilian population. Similar warnings have been issued by many of Israel’s Western allies.

Netanyahu has said such a plan is in the works, while declaring Sunday that “those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are essentially telling us: ‘Lose the war.’”

Palestinians inspect the damage to residential buildings where two Israeli hostages were reportedly held before being rescued during an operation by Israeli security forces in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Turning to the country’s north, Gantz warned that Israel “will fulfill our objectives and drive Hezbollah away from our towns” on the Lebanese border, which have come under constant rocket fire by the terrorist group since Hamas launched its October 7 attack on Israel, sparking the war.

Hezbollah has to decide if it wants to “commit suicide as an organization,” he continued, adding that “it’s very important for the Western world to explain to the Lebanese government that they should hunt down Hezbollah, because they are the ones [who are] going to pay the price.”

“And if we have to wage a war in Lebanon, we will do it,” he declared.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there. This has led to Israeli retaliations and regular cross-border fire, and has displaced tens of thousands of Israelis in border communities.

Israel has said it will no longer tolerate the presence of Hezbollah along the Lebanon frontier, where it could attempt to carry out an attack similar to the massacre committed by Hamas on October 7. It has warned that a failure of international diplomacy to force Hezbollah away from the border will necessitate an Israeli offensive.

Soon after Gantz’s speech, an anti-tank guided missile fired from Lebanon struck the entrance to the northern community of Shtula. There were no injuries. The IDF said it was responding with artillery shelling at the source of fire.

Gantz thanked Washington for its military and diplomatic support and insisted that despite disagreements on some elements, “when we say ‘Together we will win’ – we mean also together with our American partners, Republicans and Democrats alike” — as well as “together with other international leaders.”

“This victory goes hand in hand with our will to expand the circle of peace and form a united regional axis facing Iran. For that reason, the normalization process with Saudi Arabia is an important endeavor we must pursue – and I am personally working toward it,” Gantz stated.

However, “after October 7, the pathway to regional stability and peace is not through one-sided actions like recognition of a Palestinian state,” he said.

“It is through facilitating long-term processes that will consolidate a regional architecture facing the Iranian axis of terror, and by advancing international arrangements that will improve the lives of people throughout the region and promote stability and peace.”

Hezbollah members parade during a ceremony to commemorate the party’s fallen leaders in the Lebanese village of Jibshit, about 50 kilometers south of the capital Beirut on February 15, 2024. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)

Gantz’s comments came hours after the cabinet approved a statement rejecting unilateral steps by countries toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, which the government described as a “massive, unprecedented prize for terror.”

The October 7 attacks, in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people and abducted 253, distilled for many Israelis the security challenges of Palestinian statehood.

The cabinet declared: “A settlement, if it is to be reached, will come about solely through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions” and any unilateral recognition of an independent Palestinian state “would prevent any future peace settlement,”

Israel has pushed back hard against international pressure for progress on a Palestinian state in recent days, with Netanyahu saying on Saturday evening that his government “will not capitulate to international dictates” regarding a future agreement with the Palestinians.

“An agreement will be achieved only in direct talks between the two sides, without preconditions,” Netanyahu told reporters, stressing that he will continue “to firmly oppose unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood.”

According to the Washington Post, the US and several Arab partners are preparing a detailed plan for a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that includes a “firm timeline” for a two-state solution.

Even while a military victory in Gaza is in sight, it could take years to rebuild “governance capacity inside Gaza, which cannot be Hamas and should not be Israel,” Gantz cautioned, stating that a future civilian administration of the coastal territory will likely be composed of “local Palestinians supported by some sort of regional committee or arrangement.”

But the order of the day is “war now, peace later,” he said.

Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian Authority ruling Gaza after the war, citing its lack of condemnation for Hamas’s October 7 atrocities and financial support for terrorists and their families. But he has not suggested an alternative.

Times of Israel staff, Emanuel Fabian and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: