Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday slammed calls for Israel to avoid carrying out a military offensive inside Rafah, as the military appeared set to turn its attention to the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip, a crucial goal in the war as it serves as a smuggling haven for the enclave’s terror groups.
Despite international alarm over the potential carnage in a city crammed with more than a million displaced Palestinians, the prime minister told ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” the offensive is key to crushing Hamas, the terror organization that has ruled Gaza for more than 16 years.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war. Keep Hamas there,” he added.
War erupted when Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel on October 7 to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, while taking 253 hostages of all ages, committing numerous atrocities, and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.
Rafah has become home to close to many of the Strip’s displaced Palestinians who were pushed south by the months-long war.
Netanyahu assured that Israel will provide “safe passage for the civilian population” ahead of the expected assault, and rejected fears of a “catastrophe.”
“We are working out a detailed plan to do so,” Netanyahu added. “We’re not, we’re not cavalier about this.”
“Victory is within reach. We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions and Rafah, which is the last bastion, but we’re going to do it,” he said.
However, expanding the offensive to Rafah may damage the chances of ongoing talks for a deal to release hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire.
#Watch: Netanyahu's statement to ABC regarding the Rafah operation:
“Victory is within reach, we will
do it while providing safe passage…” pic.twitter.com/ZBj3T5yzKt
— Open Source Intel (@Osint613) February 11, 2024
Any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah on the Gaza border will “blow up” the hostage exchange negotiations,” Hamas-run Aqsa Television channel quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying on Sunday.
It is believed that 132 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. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.
Hamas is also 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.
A senior Biden administration official told NBC News Sunday that “there is a growing divide between the US and Israel,” especially over a potential operation in Rafah.
The White House and State Department said last week that they would not support an IDF operation in the city before extensive planning was done on protecting civilians.
Top European diplomats also expressed concern Saturday over a potential humanitarian disaster in Rafah if an offensive were to go ahead. Netanyahu reportedly believes that given international pressure, Israel only has one month left to complete the operation, specifically, before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10 and tends to be a period of increased tensions in the region.
The European Union’s head of foreign affairs Josep Borrell said Saturday an assault on Rafah would be an “unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe” and warned that it could spark “grave tensions with Egypt.”
“Resuming negotiations to free hostages and suspend hostilities is the only way to avert a bloodshed [sic],” he posted on X.
British Foreign Minister David Cameron said he is “deeply concerned” about the prospect of an Israeli military operation in Rafah.
In a statement on X, Cameron said fighting must stop immediately so aid can enter and hostages can be freed, followed by “progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot said in a pair of tweets that the situation in the city is “very worrying.”
“Hard to see how large-scale military operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. This is unjustifiable,” she wrote, and added that a truce followed by a long-term ceasefire is needed, and called for hostages to be released.
The operation is further complicated by Egypt’s concerns, amid fears that Palestinians fleeing Rafah could try and cross into the Sinai. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Egyptian officials warned the decades-long peace treaty between Egypt and Israel could be suspended in such a case.
As the Israel Defense Forces awaited the order to operate on the ground in Rafah, troops of the IDF’s 98th Division continued to battle Hamas in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, while the 162nd Division carried out smaller raids in central and northern Gaza.
Simultaneously, the Israeli Air Force and Navy carried out strikes on various Hamas targets across the Strip, the military said in a statement.
In an update on the ground operation, the IDF said the Nahal Brigade spotted and killed a Hamas operative who had been observing the forces and fired an anti-tank missile at them in central Gaza.
Moments later, more missiles were fired toward the soldiers. The IDF said the Nahal troops spotted two operatives coming out of the building from which the missiles were fired and directed an aircraft to strike and kill the pair.
The Nahal Brigade also directed several more airstrikes on Hamas sites in central Gaza, including a weapons depot, the IDF said.
Meanwhile, in western Khan Younis, the IDF said the Paratroopers Brigade and Egoz commando unit raided several Hamas sites, killing a number of operatives and locating weapons.
In another area of Khan Younis, the 7th Armored Brigade killed several more Hamas gunmen and the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade located weapons, the IDF said.
Also in Khan Younis, airstrikes were carried out against three weapons depots and a Hamas cell that had fired at troops, the IDF added.
The IDF said the Givati Brigade has “deepened” the damage caused to Hamas’s western Khan Younis Battalion, and has strengthened its “operational control” in the area in southern Gaza.
Over the past two weeks, the IDF said, Givati troops killed some 100 Hamas operatives in close-quarters fighting, tank shelling, sniper fire, and by calling in airstrikes.
Footage released by the IDF shows one of the airstrikes against three Hamas operatives who were spotted by Givati troops carrying a large explosive device on a motorcycle.
The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said the Palestinian death toll in the Strip since the start of the war has reached 28,176, and an additional 67,784 people have been injured. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.