Netanyahu Says Israel Will Invade Gaza City of Rafah

Netanyahu Says Israel Will Invade Gaza City of Rafah

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israeli forces would push into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah regardless of the outcome of talks to pause the fighting that appear to have been making some progress in recent days.

“It has to be done,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Because total victory is our goal, and total victory is within reach.”

Mr. Netanyahu did say that if a cease-fire deal was reached, the move into Rafah, which during 20 weeks of war has served as a last refuge for hundreds of thousands of Gazan families forced from their homes, would be “delayed somewhat.”

The push toward Rafah has drawn warnings from Israel’s closest ally, the United States, because of the potential for mass civilian casualties beyond the nearly 30,000 Gazans who have already been reported killed in the war, more than half of whom are women and children.

Mr. Netanyahu, speaking on the CBS News program “Face the Nation,” said Sunday that he believed that Israel would be “weeks away” from total victory once the Rafah operation began.

Israeli officials have said that the battle for Rafah could take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin during the second week of March. Ramadan has been a critical moment for tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over the years.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned in a press briefing on Sunday of “catastrophic” consequences if fighting continued in Gaza during Ramadan. Al Jazeera quoted him as saying it “will place the entire region at the risk of an explosion.”

The Israeli government has come under intense criticism from neighbors and allies alike for the breadth of death and destruction in Gaza as it has prosecuted its war against Hamas in retaliation for the militant-led Oct. 7 attacks which killed a reported 1,200 people in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday that the Israeli military had defied predictions and warnings from the “best of friends” at the outset of the war, an apparent reference to U.S. officials.

“They said you cannot fight, you can’t enter Gaza City, you can’t go into the tunnels, it will be a terrible blood bath,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “All of that turned out to be not true.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments seemed to underline the yawning gulf between how the war is being perceived inside Israel, where the main concern is the release of Israeli hostages and the defeat of Hamas, and much of the rest of the world, where there is anger and despair over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu said that “this war has been forced upon” Israel and that Hamas “not only targets civilians but hides behind civilians.” Israel has also said it is taking steps to allow displaced civilians in Rafah to move to safer places.

But on Sunday, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, again urged caution. “We’ve been clear that we do not believe that an operation, a major military operation, should proceed in Rafah unless there is a clear and executable plan to protect civilians, to get them to safety and to feed, clothe and house them — and we have not seen a plan like that,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments came as an Israeli delegation prepared to leave for Qatar for intensive talks with mediators aimed at closing the gaps around a new deal for a temporary cease-fire with Hamas and the release of some hostages held in Gaza. As Israeli official familiar with the discussions said the Israeli delegation could arrive in Qatar, which has been helping mediate the talks, as soon as Monday.

The negotiations will come on the heels of talks held on Friday in Paris, where Israel’s delegation agreed to a basic outline for a deal that would involve a six-week truce and the exchange of about 40 hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, according to two Israeli officials and a regional diplomat who all requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of the talks.

Hamas representatives did not attend the Paris meeting, and it was not immediately clear how acceptable the outline was to the group.

One main sticking point in negotiations has been Hamas’s insistence, at least publicly, on a complete cessation of hostilities as a condition for any hostage deal, as well as the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis.

Taher al-Nunu, a spokesman for Hamas’s political wing, said the group was adamant that any truce must include a long-term end to Israel’s campaign in Gaza. “We cannot talk about any ‘temporary truce’ or ‘temporary calm’ which does not guarantee these points,” Mr. al-Nunu said in a television interview on Saturday night with Al Jazeera.

Israel’s war cabinet on Saturday night approved the broad terms for a potential agreement based on the discussions in Paris, one of the Israeli officials said, clearing the way for a delegation to head to Qatar. The goal, the two Israeli officials said, was to reach a deal before the start of Ramadan.

Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Ronen Bergman, Vivian Yee and Anushka Patil.