Families of hostages hold up pictures of their loved ones

Netanyahu denies claim he’s blocking hostage deal, calls Rafah strike ‘tragic mishap’

‘You didn’t bring them home. You cannot remain prime minister,’ Opposition Leader Lapid responds to prime minister during Knesset debate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset on May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset on May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a defiant note from the Knesset rostrum on Monday evening, vowing to continue fighting in Gaza despite mounting international condemnation of the offensive in Rafah, and rejecting accusations that his government is not negotiating in good faith for the release of hostages held in the Strip.

“Those who say they are not ready to stand up to the pressure raise the flag of defeat; I won’t raise any such flag, I will keep fighting until the flag of victory is raised,” he said. “I don’t intend to end the war before every goal has been achieved. If we give in, the massacre will return. If we give in, we will give a huge win to terror, to Iran.”

Speaking in the Knesset plenum after opposition lawmakers managed to garner 40 signatures, forcing him to appear for a symbolic hearing on his performance, Netanyahu also pushed back against criticism stemming from a Sunday evening strike in Rafah linked to the deaths of numerous Palestinian civilians.

Touching on the incident — in which a strike against two top Hamas commanders appeared to spark a blaze that spread through a tent encampment, killing dozens, according to Hamas health authorities in Gaza — Netanyahu claimed that Israel has made attempts to keep civilians safe, evacuating 1 million people from Rafah, where 1.5 million were thought to be gathered before Israel’s offensive.

“Despite our efforts not to harm them, there was a tragic mishap. We are investigating the incident,” he said. “For us, it’s a tragedy; for Hamas it’s a strategy.”

As families of hostages present in the visitors’ gallery held up pictures of their loved ones and reportedly chanted, “Now,” in reference to their demand for an immediate deal, Netanyahu denied claims that he and his coalition allies are avoiding reaching an agreement that would bring the captives home while halting the fighting.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza seen during a debate in the Knesset plenum, May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I totally reject the idea that I am not giving the negotiating team the mandate it has requested,” he asserted, claiming he has okayed requests for increased flexibility five times since late December.

“I approved all the suggestions, answered every request,” Netanyahu said, a day after a report cited leaked comments from the IDF’s point person to the talks claiming the government was not playing ball.

The comments from Maj. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon to Israel Defense Forces officials involved in the hostage issue were published by Channel 12 news as Israel was preparing to reenter talks for a long-elusive deal, with both internal and outside pressure on the government to free the captives and halt its military campaign continuing to ratchet up.

“We are desperate,” the report quoted Alon as saying last week in private conversation. “With the composition of this government, there will be no deal.”

“These lying leaks that repeat the claim that we are the barrier [to a deal] are lies that not only hurt the families [of hostages], but much worse, push the [hostages’] freedom further off and harm the talks,” Netanyahu countered in his Monday speech. “Instead of putting pressure on [Hamas in Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar, it’s put on the Israeli government.”

Netanyahu’s comments came only hours after MK Gadi Eisenkot, who is an observer in the war cabinet, reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee that Israel should suspend its offensive in Rafah for as long as is necessary to secure the release of the hostages through a deal with Hamas.

Palestinians look at the destruction after Israeli strike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (AP/Jehad Alshrafi)

According to Hebrew media reports, Eisenkot told the committee that the correct thing to do in the Gaza Strip is to “reach the end of the fighting in Rafah and at the same time, move forward with hostage deal, in which we will cease fighting for as long as it takes.”

“Just as we stopped for a truce last time, we can suspend the fighting and return to it for as long as it takes to achieve the goals of the war,” Eisenkot was said to have told the committee, referring to the week-long truce in late November that brought about the release of 105 hostages.

Castigating the prime minister for his management of the conflict during the 40-signatures debate, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid on Monday called on Netanyahu to sit down to agree on a date for elections so that Israel can “have a good government.”

“In what world does the prime minister who is responsible for the greatest disaster that has happened to the Jewish people since the Holocaust remain prime minister?” he asked.

“Fifteen hundred dead and murdered. You cannot remain prime minister. Last week, we stood in Hostages Square and talked about 131 hostages, this week it is already 125 hostages. They are dying there. Girls are raped every day. Elderly people die in tunnels. It is your responsibility. It’s on your head. You didn’t bring them home. You cannot remain prime minister,” Lapid charged.

MK Yair Lapid attends a 40 signatures debate in the Knesset plenum, May 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The entire Israeli north is evacuated. The most beautiful, most flourishing region of the country, abandoned, scarred, destroyed,” he continued, adding that many IDF reservists have spent months in uniform while “you are busy at night trying to engineer an exemption from conscription for the ultra-Orthodox.”

“You cannot remain prime minister, because you are not really prime minister. You are a hostage of the extremists in your government. You don’t do what you know is right, because you are deathly afraid of [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich,” Lapid said.

“With this government we will not win the war. The people of Israel deserve more. We deserve a serious and sane government that will take care of our problems. We deserve a prime minister who is not tired, not worn out, not guilty of so many disasters.”

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