'In event of a prospect for a [hostage] deal, we will stop'

War cabinet discusses Rafah op, amid reported new initiative on hostage talks

Hostage families stage demonstration outside military headquarters; IDF repositions forces in the Strip as it awaits government approval for long-expected offensive

Relatives of hostages held in Gaza Strip and supporters protest outside a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Relatives of hostages held in Gaza Strip and supporters protest outside a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 25, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The war cabinet convened Thursday at military headquarters in Tel Aviv as Israel’s preparations for a long-expected offensive in Rafah appeared to gather steam.

Amid the Israel Defense Forces’ preparations, the Nahal Brigade was withdrawn from the Gaza Strip to train with the rest of the 162nd Division for future operations, including the looming Rafah offensive. Nahal is being replaced by two reserve brigades in central Gaza, the 679th “Yiftah” Armored Brigade and the 2nd “Carmeli” Infantry Brigade.

As the cabinet met, hostages’ families protested outside the compound to demand a deal for their release, and United States naval vessels approached the Gaza Strip in a bid to construct a makeshift dock through which to deliver aid to the embattled coastal enclave.

The Walla news site reported, citing an unnamed Israeli official, that ministers would discuss a new initiative in negotiations for a deal with Hamas. “These are internal Israeli discussions. It doesn’t mean there is an offer on the table from Hamas or one of the mediators,” an official said.

Israel says victory in the Gaza war, which began with Hamas’s cross-border killing and kidnapping spree on October 7, is impossible without taking Rafah, where Israel believes many hostages are held and where Hamas still has four operational battalions.

The wider security cabinet had before the Passover holiday empowered the war cabinet to set a date for Israel’s impending Rafah offensive, which an unnamed Israeli defense source told Reuters on Wednesday was ready, and pending government approval. A security cabinet meeting was scheduled to follow the war cabinet session.

File: The Israeli war cabinet and top security officials meet in Tel Aviv on April 14, hours after Iran’s missile and drone attack on Israel. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Referring to Israel’s plans for Rafah, the Israel Hayom daily quoted an unnamed diplomatic official as saying that “in the event of a prospect for a [hostage] deal, we will stop, but until that happens there is no plan to delay what has been planned.”

During the war cabinet meeting, a contingent of hostages’ relatives and their supporters protested outside military headquarters to call for a deal. Among other protest acts, they put up large screens on which they displayed a propaganda video Hamas released Wednesday of American-Israeli hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was snatched from the Supernova music festival on October 7.

Earlier Wednesday, Ronen Bar, head of the Shin Bet security agency, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi were reported by the Axios news site to have traveled to Cairo to discuss Egypt’s concerns that an offensive in Rafah, where over a million displaced Gazans have found shelter, would drive Palestinian refugees into Egypt en masse.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday, based on satellite images, that a new compound of tents was being built near Khan Younis in southern Gaza. The Haaretz newspaper said in an unsourced report that Egypt was behind the building of the compound in preparation for an IDF offensive in Rafah, which Israel has said would be preceded by an evacuation of the city’s civilian population.

This handout satellite image shows tent camps, reportedly for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 23, 2024. (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies/AFP)

In the past three months, the Nahal Brigade has operated in the Netzarim corridor south of Gaza City, which traverses the Strip from the Be’eri area in southern Israel to Gaza’s coast. The corridor enables the military to carry out raids in northern and central Gaza, allows Israel to control Palestinians’ access to the Strip’s north, and coordinate deliveries of humanitarian aid directly to northern Gaza.

On Thursday, the IDF announced that Nahal troops on the Netzarim corridor had ordered a fighter jet to strike two Palestinians whom the infantrymen spotted gearing up to launch rockets at Israel.

The strike was one of over 30 the IDF said it had carried out since Wednesday.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, at least 79 Palestinians were killed in the strikes and 86 were wounded.

Troops of the Nahal Brigade are seen in the Netzarim corridor, central Gaza, in a handout image published April 25, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Residents in the north of Gaza, many of whom have started to return to homes abandoned in the first phase of the war, on Wednesday described some of the most intense bombing since the war’s early weeks.

“We don’t know why this is all happening. Is it because… we finally got some aid through after months of starvation, and the Israelis didn’t like that?” Gaza City resident Mohammad Jamal, 29, told Reuters.

Israel has been facilitating the ramped-up entry of aid into Gaza in recent weeks amid intense international pressure and warnings of impending famine.

Elsewhere in the city, Palestinians tried to salvage belongings from the rubble of bombarded buildings.

Illustrative: Smoke rises above buildings during an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 21, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel’s allies — including key supporter the US — have warned against large-scale maneuvering in Rafah, saying it would greatly exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe effected by the war.

In an effort to forestall what United Nations officials have said is impending famine — particularly in the Gaza Strip’s much-battered north — US President Joe Biden has ordered the construction of a jetty off the coast of Gaza that will allow large amounts of aid to enter the Strip daily from the sea.

The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site Zman Yisrael reported Thursday that the Benavidez, the first of six or seven US ships to participate in the jetty project, had arrived near the Strip’s coast.

Illustrative: Displaced Palestinians taking the coastal Rashid road as they attempt to return to Gaza City pass through Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip, on April 14, 2024. (AFP)

The war in Gaza broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take over 250 hostages.

Vowing to dismantle the terror group and release the hostages, Israel launched an unprecedented offensive on the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 34,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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