Tue. May 28th, 2024

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has set a date for a military offensive into Rafah, despite growing warnings that it could lead to high civilian casualties.

More than a million Palestinians are sheltering in the southern city after being forced to flee their homes.

Mr Netanyahu’s comment followed calls by far-right government allies to step up military actions against Hamas.

The prime minister’s popularity has plummeted after six months of war.

With negotiations with Hamas still under way in Egypt, Mr Netanyahu is being pushed to agree a hostage-prisoner swap and ceasefire deal by many Israelis – as well as key international allies, including the US.

But as discontent grows at home and abroad over how his government has conducted the war, he is also facing calls to ramp up operations against Hamas by far-right leaders he has relied on for political support.

Mr Netanyahu’s rule is backed by a coalition that includes far-right, ultranationalist parties, some of whom are against the idea of making concessions to Hamas.

They say the war must continue and believe the Israeli military should go ahead with plans to launch an incursion into the southern city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering in tents and overcrowded camps.

Those calls intensified after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced it was pulling its troops out of Khan Younis, the largest city in southern Gaza, effectively ending major ground operations in the area.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, warned Mr Netanyahu that if he “decides to end the war without a broad attack on Rafah to defeat Hamas, he won’t have a mandate to continue serving as prime minister”.

EPA Benjamin NetanyahuEPA
Netanyahu has been at the top of Israeli politics for decades but is under intense pressure after six months of war
Far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich told the prime minister “we have to increase the pressure on Hamas in Gaza, which is the only way to bring back the [Israeli] hostages and destroy Hamas”.

Speaking on Monday after those interventions, Mr Netanyahu said: “Today I received a detailed report on the talks in Cairo – we are constantly working to achieve our goals, first and foremost the release of all our hostages and achieving a complete victory over Hamas.

“This victory requires entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there. It will happen – there is a date.”

The remarks may be seen as an attempt to appeal to allies that sustain his coalition, as any offensive is unlikely to be imminent. Mr Netanyahu did not indicate which date he had decided on.

The US is opposed to an assault on Rafah, and the Israeli government has also been urged to halt the planned offensive in a joint statement signed by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, French President Emmanuel Macron and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Writing in France’s Le Monde newspaper, they warned the plan would have “dangerous consequences” and “threaten regional escalation”, adding: “The war in Gaza and the catastrophic humanitarian suffering it is causing must end now.

They also said a recent UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all Hamas-held hostages must be “fully implemented without further delay”.

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Domestically, there have been large protests demanding an agreement to guarantee the release of the hostages.

Families say Mr Netanyahu has not made their release a priority, and that the government’s strategy of putting military pressure on Hamas to negotiate has failed. The relatives say time is running out to save the captives who remain alive.

With talks involving intermediaries in Cairo ongoing, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant suggested earlier this week that now was the right time for a deal over hostages.

On Monday, a senior Hamas official told the Reuters news agency that Israeli proposals had not met its demands, but the group said they would nevertheless be examined.

“There is no change in the position of the occupation [Israel] and therefore, there is nothing new in the Cairo talks,” the Hamas official, who asked not to be identified, said. “There is no progress yet.”

William Burns, the director of the CIA, is attending the Cairo talks. His presence underlines the growing pressure from the US – Israel’s main ally – for an agreement.

In a separate development, Israel reported that 419 aid trucks had entered Gaza on Monday, including 330 trucks carrying food – more than double the average 140 food trucks a day in March.

It follows US pressure on Israel to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate hearing that widespread famine in Gaza would “accelerate violence, and it will have the effect of ensuring that there’s a long-term conflict”.

“It doesn’t have to happen,” he said, adding: “We should continue to do everything we can, and we are doing this, to encourage the Israelis to provide humanitarian assistance.”

However, an Israeli promise to open the Erez crossing to northern Gaza, where hunger is most acute, has not yet been carried out and officials have not indicated when that could happen.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, again warned of possible famine, saying far too little aid was reaching Gaza.

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Philippe Lazzarini also warned Palestinians returning to the devastated city of Khan Younis about the threat of unexploded munitions there following the Israeli pullout.

He told there might be thousands of such devices in the rubble. Some residents who have already gone back said they were unable to locate their homes in the ruins.

Hamas attacked southern Israeli border communities on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostage.

Israel says that of 130 hostages still in Gaza, at least 34 are dead.

More than 33,000 Gazans, the majority of them civilians, have been killed during Israel’s offensive in Gaza since then, the Hamas-run health ministry says.

Gaza is said to be on the brink of famine, with Oxfam reporting that 300,000 people trapped in the north have lived since January on an average of 245 calories a day.

Israel has denied impeding the entry of aid or its distribution inside Gaza, and has accused UN agencies on the ground of failing to get the aid that is allowed in to the people who need it.

By Joy

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