PM reiterates pledge to enter Rafah, notes coalition ‘disagreements’ on security

Netanyahu acknowledges diverging views over correct course of action in ‘distant and close theaters’; Hamas chief says truce deal being looked at in ‘positive spirit’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for fallen members of the Etzel paramilitary organization in Jaffa on May 2, 2024. (Maayan Toaf/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony for fallen members of the Etzel paramilitary organization in Jaffa on May 2, 2024. (Maayan Toaf/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised once again Thursday that the military will operate against Hamas in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, while publicly acknowledging for the first time that there are disputes within his cabinet over the correct way to move forward with the prosecution of the war.

“We will do what we must in order to win and to triumph over our enemies,” Netanyahu said in prepared remarks at a memorial ceremony for fallen members of the Etzel paramilitary organization in Jaffa, adding that Israel would act, “including in Rafah.”

Possibly hinting at cabinet debates over the correct response to the Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel last month, Netanyahu said: “There were and there are disagreements among us over operations in distant and close theaters.”

“But at the end of the debate, I made a decision, and the decision was received,” he continued. “We operate there, and we will operate here as well.”

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to an operation in Rafah during his visit Wednesday. On Thursday, the top US diplomat downplayed the significance of Jerusalem’s rhetoric about the planned Rafah assault, saying that more important was its demonstrated flexibility in the hostage deal talks with Hamas.

Netanyahu is slated to head meetings of the war cabinet and the national security cabinet on Thursday evening, as the country awaits Hamas’s official answer on a proposed truce and hostage deal. If reached, such a deal would mean an incursion into Rafah would not occur, at least for the duration of the truce.

Multiple reports have indicated that Israel’s offer would see at least 33 civilian and sick hostages released in the first phase, followed by later stages that would establish a sustainable calm and possible full withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops.

People walking next to large pictures of women held hostage by terror groups in the Gaza Strip since October 7, as part of a demonstration calling for their release, near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, May 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The first stage of the deal, to last 40 days, reportedly involves a gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from parts of the Strip in order to allow the movement of humanitarian aid and the return of civilians to their homes.

The deal would reportedly entail Israel releasing many hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners.

Even if Hamas accepts the deal unconditionally, it isn’t clear whether Israel will approve it. Far-right coalition parties have repeatedly slammed it as surrendering to the terror group’s demands and as an abandonment of the initial war goal of eliminating Hamas’s governing capabilities in Gaza, and they have openly threatened to topple the government if it is approved.

In a call Thursday to Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said he “appreciated the role played by Egypt,” which along with Qatar and the United States is mediating talks, and “stressed the positive spirit of the movement in studying the ceasefire proposal,” according to a statement on Hamas’s official website.

Blinken has urged Hamas to accept the truce plan.

“Hamas needs to say yes and needs to get this done,” Blinken said Wednesday, insisting that “if Hamas actually purports to care about the Palestinian people and wants to see an immediate alleviation of their suffering, it should take this deal.”

But the outcome of the talks has remained highly uncertain, with back and forth over the number of hostages that could be released, and profound differences remaining over the aim of any agreement.

Hamas’s goal remains an “end to this war,” senior Hamas official Suhail al-Hindi said — a goal profoundly at odds with Netanyahu’s position.

File: Ismail Haniyeh, the Doha-based political bureau chief of Hamas, speaks to the press after a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister in Tehran on March 26, 2024. (AFP)

Comments from other Hamas officials in recent days had suggested the movement’s position on the truce proposal was “negative” for the time being.

But in his call, Haniyeh confirmed that the movement’s delegation would go back to Egypt “as soon as possible to complete the ongoing discussions.”

The aim of those talks, Haniyeh said, would be “reaching an agreement that fulfills the demands of our people and stops the aggression.”

Egyptian state-linked media Al-Qahera News reported Thursday that “a delegation from Hamas will arrive in Cairo within the next two days to continue truce negotiations,” citing a high-level Egyptian source.

Israeli government spokeswoman Raquela Karamson meanwhile told journalists Thursday that “the only thing preventing a deal is Hamas.”

“Hamas only hardens its conditions and entrenches itself in unreasonable demands,” she said.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 253 hostages to Gaza.

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 12 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 34 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas has also been holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

“In seven months of Hamas captivity, we have never been informed as to their conditions,” Karamson said.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the subsequent war in the Strip, but the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include both Hamas fighters and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7. The army also says 263 soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground operation.

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