Netanyahu vows to invade Rafah ‘with or without a deal’ as cease-fire talks with Hamas continue

AP – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday to launch an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering from the almost 7-month-long war, just as cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas appear to be gaining steam.

Netanyahu’s comments came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to arrive in Israel to advance the truce talks — which appear to be one of the most serious rounds of negotiations between Israel and Hamas since the war began. The deal is meant to free hostages, bring some relief to the population and avert an Israeli offensive into Rafah and the potential harm to civilians there.

Netanyahu said Israel would enter Rafah, which Israel says is Hamas’ last stronghold, regardless of whether a truce-for-hostages deal is struck. His comments appeared to be meant to appease his nationalist governing partners but it was not clear whether they would have any bearing on any emerging deal with Hamas.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there — with or without a deal, to achieve the total victory.”

The U.S. has repeatedly said it opposes the Rafah operation until Israel presents a credible plan for evacuating and protecting the estimated 1.5 million people seeking shelter there.

Blinken, speaking in Jordan before flying to Israel, said the “focus” right now is on improving the humanitarian situation and reaching a cease-fire deal that brings Israeli hostages home. He said Israel has offered a “strong proposal” and called on Hamas to respond.

“No more delays. No more excuses. The time to act is now,” he said. “We want to see in the coming days this agreement coming together.”

Netanyahu has faced pressure from his governing partners not to proceed with a deal that might prevent Israel from invading Rafah. His government could be threatened if he agrees to a deal because hardline Cabinet members have demanded an attack on Rafah.

Netanyahu met on Tuesday with one of those partners, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, according to the minister’s office, who said Netanyahu promised him that “Israel will enter Rafah, promised that we are not stopping the war and promised that there won’t be a reckless deal.”

With more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people sheltering in Rafah, the international community, including Israel’s top ally, the United States, has warned Israel against any offensive that puts civilians at risk.

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