Israeli foreign minister says hostage deal would defer Rafah operation

Meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the conflict between Israel and Hamas in New York

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel's foreign minister said on Saturday that a planned incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah could be suspended should a deal emerge to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

The comments came as international mediators push for a deal to achieve a ceasefire in the six months of devastating fighting in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages taken during Hamas' Oct. 7 assault that sparked the war.

"The release of the hostages is the top priority for us," Foreign Minister Israel Katz said during an interview with local Channel 12 television.

Asked if that included putting off a planned operation to eliminate Hamas battalions in the city of Rafah, Katz answered, "Yes."

He went on to say: "If there will be a deal, we will suspend the operation."

Though Katz is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, he is not a member of the narrow-forum war cabinet overseeing the Gaza offensive.

Israel, which launched its war to annihilate Hamas after the Islamist group's Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli towns, says Rafah is home to four Hamas combat battalions reinforced by thousands of retreating fighters, and it must defeat them to achieve victory.

But Rafah, which abuts the Egyptian border, is sheltering more than a million Palestinians who fled the Israeli offensive through the rest of Gaza and say the prospect of fleeing yet again is terrifying.

Earlier on Saturday, Hamas said it had received Israel's official response to its latest ceasefire proposal in Egyptian- and Qatari-mediated negotiations and will study it before submitting its reply.

On Thursday, the United States and 17 other countries appealed to Hamas to release all of its hostages as a pathway to end the crisis.

Hamas wants to parlay any deal into a permanent end to the fighting - short of a formal peace, as the Islamist group is sworn to Israel's destruction. Israel plans to pursue the war until Hamas's governing and military capacities are dismantled.

More than 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza captivity, including women and children.

As Hamas issued a new video showing two of the hostages pleading for their release and sending love to their families, thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv in protest, demanding that the government do more to secure their release.

Some 1,200 people were killed on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies, in the deadliest single attack in Israel's history. Israel's offensive in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to health authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by David Evans)