Israel has set date for Rafah offensive, Benjamin Netanyahu says

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Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had set a date for an assault on Rafah, after far-right allies warned that his premiership would not be tenable if he did not launch an attack on the town in southern Gaza.

The US has in recent weeks put increasingly public pressure on Netanyahu not to carry out a major operation in Rafah, which has become Hamas’s last stronghold, but which is also sheltering more than 1mn people displaced by fighting elsewhere in the devastated enclave.

However, in a statement late on Monday, Netanyahu insisted that Israeli forces would enter the city. “Victory requires entering Rafah and eliminating the terrorist battalions there,” he said.

“This will happen; there is a date.”

Netanyahu’s statement came after his far-right coalition partners lashed out at the Israeli military’s withdrawal of some troops from Gaza on Sunday, with ultranationalist security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir warning that “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”.

Israel’s military cast the withdrawal as part of preparations for future missions, including in Rafah. But it also fuelled hopes that long-stalled talks to secure the release of the 133 hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza in the wake of its October 7 attack could be edging closer to a deal, which would also involve an initial truce of around six weeks.

On Monday, after the latest round of negotiations in Cairo, Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz and defence minister Yoav Gallant said progress was being made, with Katz suggesting that a “critical point” had been reached.

Ultranationalist security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir warned the prime minister not to pull back from an offensive in Rafah © Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images

“If matters work out, a large number of hostages will return home and, in stages, everyone,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio. “I am more optimistic than I was, but we can’t promise things when dealing with Hamas.”

Gallant later said Israel had a chance to bring back the hostages, but that doing so would require “difficult decisions”. “I believe we are at an opportune moment, but there’s another side that must agree to it,” he said in a meeting with new recruits.

John Kirby, US National Security Council spokesman, said in a briefing on Monday that a proposal had been presented to Hamas over the weekend, and that the US was waiting for it to respond.

However, a person briefed on the talks said that while some progress had been made in the latest talks, key sticking points remained, with Israel rejecting Hamas’s demands that civilians be allowed to return to the north of Gaza, and that any deal ultimately lead to a permanent ceasefire.

“The current situation is very fluid,” the person said. “[Mossad chief David] Barnea has been given a wider, more flexible mandate in the Cairo talks, but I don’t think that has led to anything significant yet.”

Ben-Gvir’s intervention underscored how complicated the domestic politics of any deal will be for Netanyahu, who depends on both the national security minister’s Jewish Power party and a second far-right faction led by Bezalel Smotrich for his majority.

Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have repeatedly opposed any measures designed to ease the military pressure on Gaza, with Ben-Gvir voting against a November deal that involved a temporary truce and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages.

Smotrich wrote to Netanyahu on Monday, accusing him of sidelining the cabinet on the decision to withdraw some troops from Gaza, and demanding that the cabinet be convened to discuss the matter.

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