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Israel will go ahead with Rafah offensive, Netanyahu says

Prime minister says cease-fire deal would only delay military operation ‘somewhat’

By Tia Goldenberg, Wafaa Shurafa and Samy Magdy, Associated Press
Published: February 25, 2024, 4:27pm

TEL AVIV, Israel — An Israeli military offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah could be “delayed somewhat” if a deal is reached for a weekslong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, and claimed that total victory in the territory would come within weeks once the offensive begins.

Netanyahu confirmed to CBS that a deal is in the works, with no details. Talks resumed Sunday in Qatar at the specialist level, Egypt’s state-run Al Qahera TV reported, citing an Egyptian official as saying discussions would follow in Cairo with the aim of achieving the cease-fire and release of dozens of hostages held in Gaza as well as Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel is nearing approval of plans to expand its offensive against the Hamas militant group to Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border, where more than half the territory’s population of 2.3 million have sought refuge. Humanitarian groups warn of a catastrophe. Rafah is Gaza’s main entry point for aid. The U.S. and other allies say Israel must avoid harming civilians.

Netanyahu has said he’ll convene the Cabinet this week to approve operational plans that include the evacuation of civilians to elsewhere in Gaza.

“Once we begin the Rafah operation, the intense phase of the fighting is weeks away from completion. Not months,” Netanyahu told CBS. “If we don’t have a deal, we’ll do it anyway.” He said four of the six remaining Hamas battalions are concentrated in Rafah.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC that President Joe Biden hadn’t been briefed on the Rafah plan. “We believe that this operation should not go forward until or unless we see (a plan to protect civilians),” Sullivan said.

Heavy fighting continued in parts of northern Gaza, the first target of the offensive, where the destruction is staggering.

“We’re trapped, unable to move because of the heavy bombardment,” Gaza City resident Ayman Abu Awad said.

He said starving residents have been forced to eat animal fodder and search for food in demolished buildings. In nearby Jabaliya, market vendor Um Ayad showed off a leafy weed that people pick from the harsh, dry soil and eat.

“We have to feed the children. They keep screaming they want food. We cannot find food. We don’t know what to do,” she said.

Israel said 245 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday — less than half the number that entered daily before the war.