Netanyahu vows again to storm Rafah as Israel awaits Hamas reply to truce proposal

Demonstration in support of Palestinians in New York

By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/CAIRO (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Tuesday to go ahead with a long-promised assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, whatever the response by Hamas to the latest proposals for a halt to the fighting and a return of Israeli hostages.

Expectations that a ceasefire agreement could be in sight have grown in recent days following a renewed push led by Egypt to revive stalled negotiations between Israel and Hamas, Gaza's ruling Palestinian Islamist group.

However Netanyahu said that with or without a deal, Israel intended to pursue the operation to destroy the remaining Hamas combat formations in Rafah, where more than 1 million Gaza Palestinians displaced from their homes are seeking shelter.

"The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question," he said in a statement. "We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal, in order to achieve total victory."

Densely populated Gaza has already been largely devastated by the Israeli campaign and international pressure for an agreement to stop the war has been building as the conflict nears the end of its seventh month.

On Tuesday, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv following a visit to Riyadh to help advance a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the State Department said it had still not seen a credible plan for an Israeli operation in Rafah.

Visiting French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne also weighed in, telling Netanyahu going ahead with the Rafah operation would be a "bad idea" that would not resolve anything.

Earlier, a person close to Netanyahu said Israel has been waiting for Hamas to respond to the latest ceasefire proposals tabled by Egypt, one of several foreign mediators, before sending a team to Cairo to continue talks.

But so far there has been little sign of agreement on the most fundamental difference between the two sides - the Hamas demand that any deal must ensure a withdrawal of troops and a permanent end to the Israeli operation in Gaza.

"We can't tell our people the occupation will stay or the fight will resume after Israel regains its prisoners," said a Palestinian official from a group allied with Hamas. "Our people want this aggression to end."

For Netanyahu, any move is likely to be affected by divisions in his coalition cabinet between ministers pressing to bring home at least some of the 133 Israeli hostages left in Gaza, and hardliners insisting on the long-promised assault on remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah.


Israeli officials have said the operation could be deferred if Hamas accepts the deal on offer - which includes no definitive ceasefire but the return of 33 vulnerable hostages - women, children and those in frail health - in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners and a limited pause in the fighting.

"As far as Israel is concerned, this is the last chance to hold off a Rafah sweep. The IDF has already started mobilising troops for that operation," said a second Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

The Israeli military said two divisions which left Gaza last week were refitting and repairing equipment and holding training and operational assessment exercises in preparation for continued operations in the enclave.

However, there were some questions about whether the repeated declarations of an impending operation were intended mainly as a negotiating tactic to put pressure on Hamas.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu's repeated vows to launch an Israeli offensive into Rafah were "definitely meant to apply pressure at this point".

"It is uncertain if he (Netanyahu) is committed in the longer term" to storming Rafah, the official said.

Netanyahu's position has been complicated by talk that the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be preparing arrest warrants for himself and other senior Israeli leaders on charges related to the conduct of the war.

On Tuesday, he said any ICC arrest warrants would be a scandal on an "historic scale" but would not affect Israel's determination to achieve its war aims.

The ICC has so far said nothing to confirm the speculation, which prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to warn Israeli embassies abroad to bolster their security.

But it underlined fears in Israel of growing isolation over the fighting in Gaza, which has caused mounting international alarm at the scale of destruction, the risk of famine and the prospect of a slide into a wider regional conflict. Most of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been displaced by the war.

Israel's military campaign has so far killed at least 34,535 Palestinians, including 47 in the past 24 hours, Gaza's health ministry said in its daily update on Tuesday.

Israel's air and ground war in Gaza began after Hamas-led gunmen burst through the border on Oct. 7 and rampaged through nearby communities, killing some 1,200 Israelis and foreigners and taking 253 into captivity, according to Israeli tallies.

(Additional reportiong by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Nick Macfie, Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich)