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Israeli PM Netanyahu sets 'date' for Rafah invasion as ceasefire talks in Cairo deadlocked

Israel has threatened a ground offensive in nearby Rafah, the last refuge for Gaza's beleaguered population, for weeks. The prospect of an operation in Rafah has sparked global alarm, including from Israel's top ally - the US - which has urged the military to protect civilians.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Jerusalem Published on: April 09, 2024 15:45 IST
Israel Hamas war, Benjamin Netanyahu, Rafah invasion
Image Source : AP Most of the Gaza Strip lies in ruins as Israeli forces withdrew from the besieged enclave.

Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that a date has been 'set' for an imminent invasion of Gaza's Rafah, which is the last refuge for Palestinians as the six-month-long war has decimated most of the coastal enclave, as ceasefire talks in Cairo, Egypt appear to have been deadlocked. However, Netanyahu has yet to disclose the date of the invasion that has sparked global alarm.

"Today I received a detailed report on the talks in Cairo, we are constantly working to achieve our goals, first and foremost the release of all our hostages and achieving a complete victory over Hamas," Netanyahu said on Monday. "This victory requires entry into Rafah and the elimination of the terrorist battalions there. It will happen - there is a date."

Several allies of Israel, including the strongest of them all - the United States - have expressed alarm over the possible invasion in Rafah, which is expected to result in a larger number of civilian casualties in Gaza, and have called for an immediate ceasefire. Washington has said a ground operation into Rafah would be a mistake and has demanded to see a credible plan to protect civilians.

More than one million people are crammed into the southern city in desperate conditions, short of food, water and shelter, and foreign governments and organisations have urged Israel against storming Rafah for fears of a bloodbath. Hundreds of residents who had been living in tents in Rafah ventured back to their devastated home areas on Monday after Israel scaled back its troops in Gaza as ceasefire negotiations are underway.

Far-right ministers criticise Netanyahu

However, Israel's far-right national security adviser Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened to withdraw support to Netanyahu if he ended the war without an invasion in Rafah. "If the prime minister decides to end the war without a large-scale offensive in Rafah to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue serving as prime minister,” Ben-Gvir wrote on X.

Ben-Gvir, along with another far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich, have also criticised Netanyahu for scaling down troops from Gaza. Smotrich demanded that Netanyahu convene a National Security Cabinet, adding that the smaller war cabinet has made decisions under international pressures that harm the war's momentum and Israel's security interests, reported Jerusalem Post.

Smotrich continued that he has been “warning for many weeks that instead of lowering the floor from the gas pedal, we need to increase the pressure on Hamas in Gaza, and this is the only way to bring back the hostages and defeat Hamas". Netanyahu's coalition is heavily dependent on Ben-Gvir's Jewish Power party and a faction led by Smotrich.

Ceasefire negotiations in Cairo

As negotiations for a ceasefire and the release of hostages Hamas continue in Cairo, has rejected a truce proposal by Israel, according to a senior official of the militant group on Monday. Israel and Hamas sent teams to Egypt on Sunday for talks that included Qatari and Egyptian mediators as well as CIA Director William Burns.

"We reject the latest Israeli proposals that the Egyptian side informed us of. The politburo met today and decided this," said Hamas' Ali Baraka, while another official said no progress had been made in the ongoing negotiations. "There is no change in the position of the occupation (Israel) and therefore, there is nothing new in the Cairo talks," the Hamas official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz described the Cairo talks as the closest the sides have come to a deal since a short-lived November truce under which Hamas freed nearly half of its hostages. Of the 253 people Hamas seized on October 7, 133 hostages remain captive. Negotiators have spoken of around 40 going free in the first stage of a prospective deal.

Two Egyptian security sources and state-run Al-Qahera News said some progress had been made in the Cairo talks. They said both sides had made concessions that could lead to a deal for a three-stage truce, with the release of any remaining Israeli hostages and a long-term ceasefire addressed in the second stage. However, a Palestinian official said the deadlock continues over Israel's refusal to end the war and withdraw all forces from Gaza.

Israel scaled down its troops in Gaza to its lowest levels since the war began, although a "significant force" remained in Gaza to continue targeted operations including in Khan Younis. Israel said it wrapped up a key phase in its ground offensive against the Hamas militant group. The military operation has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, since Hamas attacked Israel and killed 1,200 people there on October 7.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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