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Netanyahu says Israeli army will enter Rafah despite ‘international pressure’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israeli troops would pursue a planned ground offensive in southern Gaza’s Rafah that has spurred fears of mass civilian casualties.

“No amount of international pressure will stop us from realizing all the goals of the war: eliminating Hamas, releasing all our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting in a video released by his office.

“To do this, we will also operate in Rafah.”

His comments came as talks were expected to resume in Doha toward a truce in Gaza, where Israel has pursued a campaign against Hamas militants for more than five months.

Israeli cabinet members were set to discuss the “mandate” of the negotiations team later Sunday, Netanyahu’s office has said.

He was also due to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was expected to reiterate his warning against a Rafah ground offensive.

Most of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have sought refuge from relentless Israeli bombardment in the southern city.

US President Joe Biden, who has backed Israel during the war, has said an invasion of Rafah would be a “red line” unless credible civilian protection plans are in place.

The head of the UN’s World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appealed to Israel Friday “in the name of humanity” not to launch the assault.

Netanyahu’s office said Friday he had approved the military’s plan for an operation in Rafah, though no timeline was given.

Elections would ‘paralyse’ Israel

Rafah is the last major population center in Gaza yet to be subjected to a ground assault in the war, which was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel.

The attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli figures.

Hamas took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages on October 7, and Israel believes about 130 of those remain in Gaza including 32 presumed dead.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 31,645 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Netanyahu on Sunday also criticized “those in the international community who are trying to stop the war now” by “making false accusations” against Israel and its military.

Israel has faced consistent criticism for civilian casualties in Gaza as well as stark aid shortages that have fuelled fears of famine.

On Thursday, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Israel to hold new elections, sparking angry pushback from Netanyahu’s Likud party, which said Israel “is not a banana republic”.

Netanyahu on Sunday said new elections would “stop the war, and paralyze the country for at least six months”.

“If we stop the war now before all of its goals are achieved, it means that Israel has lost the war, and we will not allow that.”

In his first public response against Schumer, Netanyahu branded the lawmaker’s remarks “totally inappropriate” and insisted most Israelis back the war.

“If Senator Schumer opposes these policies, he’s not opposing me; he’s opposing the people of Israel,” Netanyahu told CNN on Sunday.

Meanwhile, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned of “concerns” about Israel’s looming Rafah operation.

“We will not support, cannot support, an operation in Rafah that doesn’t have an executable, verifiable, achievable plan to take care of the 1.5 million people that are trying to find refuge in Rafah,” Kirby told Fox News Sunday.

Biden’s administration “would certainly welcome” an opportunity to study the Rafah plan before the operation, Kirby added.

“We haven’t seen it yet.”

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