Sullivan: US has yet to see plan to protect Rafah civilians

Netanyahu: Total victory in Gaza will be ‘weeks away’ once Rafah operation launched

PM tells US TV that incursion could be delayed but not canceled if hostage agreement secured; US confirms an ‘understanding’ was reached in Paris on ‘basic countours’ of deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a plenum session at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a plenum session at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli military operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah could be “delayed somewhat” if a deal for a weekslong truce between Israel and Hamas is reached, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, but claimed that total victory in Gaza is “weeks away” once the incursion begins.

Speaking to Margaret Brennan on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Netanyahu confirmed that a deal is in the works but did not provide details. Israeli media reported that mediators were making progress on an agreement for a temporary ceasefire and the release of dozens of hostages held captive in Gaza as well as Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. Several Israeli media outlets, citing unnamed officials, said the war cabinet tacitly approved it.

Talks resumed on Sunday in Qatar at the specialist level, Egypt’s state-run Al Qahera TV reported, citing an Egyptian official as saying further discussions would follow in Cairo with the aim of achieving the temporary ceasefire and release.

Multiple reports have indicated that the outline includes the release in the first phase of some 40 hostages held in Gaza, including women, children, female soldiers and elderly and ill abductees, amid a pause in fighting of some six weeks.

It also includes the release by Israel of hundreds of Palestinian terror convicts, and a “redeployment” of Israeli troops within Gaza — but not a complete withdrawal as Hamas had previously demanded. The outline would also reportedly see Israel enable the return of Palestinian women and children to northern Gaza, from where hundreds of thousands evacuated during the fighting, and which Israel has kept cut off from the rest of the enclave.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, responded to Netanyahu’s comments, saying that they cast doubt over Israel’s willingness to secure a hostage deal.

“Netanyahu’s comments show he is not concerned about reaching an agreement,” Abu Zuhri told Reuters, accusing the Israeli leader of wanting “to pursue negotiation under bombardment and the bloodshed” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel is developing plans for expanding its offensive against the Hamas terror group to Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border, where more than half the territory’s population of 2.3 million have sought refuge. Humanitarian groups warn of a catastrophe, with Rafah the main entry point for aid, and the US and other allies have said Israel must avoid harming civilians. Israel’s political and military leaders have said the operation will not begin until the safety of non-combatants has been ensured.

Netanyahu has said he will convene the cabinet this week to approve operational plans for action in Rafah, including the evacuation of civilians.

“Once we begin the Rafah operation, the intense phase of the fighting is weeks away from completion. Not months,” Netanyahu told CBS. “If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway. It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach.”

He said that four of the six remaining Hamas battalions are concentrated in Rafah.

US confirms Paris talks formulated ‘basic contours’ of hostage deal

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC Sunday morning that President Joe Biden hadn’t been briefed on the Rafah plan and said, “We believe that this operation should not go forward until or unless we see [a plan to protect civilians].”

Sullivan also confirmed to CNN on Sunday that representatives from Israel, the US, Egypt and Qatar who met in Paris late last week “came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for a temporary ceasefire would look like.”

Sullivan said that any such deal “is still under negotiation in terms of hammering out the details of it. There will have to be indirect discussions by Qatar and Egypt with Hamas because ultimately they will have to agree to release the hostages,” he added. “That work is underway. And we hope that in the coming days, we can drive to a point where there is actually a firm and final agreement on this issue.”

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Speaking to CBS, Netanyahu was asked about “growing distrust of you personally” by Congress and the Biden White House. “When you’re closest ally is telling you things like this and telling you you need to reconsider a strategy, isn’t it worth considering?” Brennan queried the prime minister.

Netanyahu eventually responded to the remark: “Well, first of all, you say there’s no confidence in me, well the Israeli public has confidence in me.” The prime minister’s approval ratings, however, have plummeted since October 7 and almost all polls show that he would not be able to form a coalition were early elections to be held.

On the differences over strategy between the US and Israel, the prime minister said that he thinks “the US agrees with us on the goal of destroying Hamas and the goal of releasing the hostages. The decisions on how to do that are left with us, and with me, and with the elected cabinet of Israel.

“A lot of things that we were told by the best of friends initially turned out to not be true,” Netanyahu continued. “They said ‘you can’t enter the ground war without having enormous complications,’ they said ‘you can’t enter Gaza City, you can’t go into the tunnels, it will be a terrible bloodbath.’ All that turned out to be not true,” he said.

“Our soldiers are in the tunnel network. We don’t have to take apart hundreds of kilometers of tunnels. We are taking apart the missile production factories that are underground, the command and control headquarters, the computers that are there, the money that is there, the weapons that are there, and the ammo that is there. We’re doing that methodically,” he continued.

IDF soldiers operating in Gaza in a photograph released by the military, Feb. 25, 2024. (IDF Spokesperson)

“You can’t substitute for the Israeli military command, and we’re doing it very responsibly. John Spencer, who’s the head of urban warfare [at the Modern War Institute], says that no other army has gone to the lengths that Israel’s army has gone to clear civilians out of harm’s way even though Hamas is doing everything to keep them in harm’s way,” Netanyahu added.

Since the beginning of the war, more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. These numbers cannot be independently verified and do not differentiate between Hamas operatives and civilians. The IDF says it has killed more than 12,000 Hamas gunmen during its operations in Gaza so far.

The war broke out following Hamas’s October 7 attack, which saw Hamas terrorists kill some 1,200 people in a rampage through southern Israel, mostly civilians massacred amid brutal atrocities, and kidnap 253 people. Some 130 are still held in Gaza.

Most Popular
read more: