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Netanyahu Vows to Invade Rafah ‘With or Without a Deal’ as Cease-Fire Talks with Hamas Continue

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Tuesday to launch an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering from the almost 7-month-long war, as cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas appear to be gaining steam.

Netanyahu’s comments came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Israel to advance the truce talks — which appear to be one of the most serious rounds of negotiations between Israel and Hamas since the war began. The deal is meant to free hostages, bring some relief to the population and avert an Israeli offensive into Rafah and the potential harm to civilians there.

Netanyahu said Israel would enter Rafah to destroy Hamas’ battalions there regardless of whether a truce-for-hostages deal was struck or not. Netanyahu’s comments appeared to be meant to appease his nationalist governing partners but it was not clear whether they would have any bearing on any emerging deal with Hamas.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there — with or without a deal, to achieve the total victory.”

Netanyahu has faced pressure from his governing partners not to proceed with a deal that might prevent Israel from invading Rafah, which it says is Hamas’ last major stronghold. His government could be threatened if he agrees to a deal because hard-line Cabinet members have demanded an attack on Rafah. Netanyahu met on Tuesday with one of those partners, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, according to the minister’s office, although it did not disclose details.

With more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people sheltering in Rafah, the international community, including Israel’ top ally the U.S., has warned Israel against any offensive that puts civilians at risk.

Netanyahu on Tuesday was addressing the Tikva Forum, a small group of families of hostages that’s distinct from the main group representing the families of captive Israelis that has indicated it prefers to see Hamas crushed over the freedom of their loved ones. Families and their supporters have demonstrated in the thousands every week for a deal that would bring the hostages home, saying it should take precedence over military action.

Netanyahu’s coalition is made up of ultranationalist and conservative religious parties, and critics of the Israeli leader say his decision-making during the war has been driven by political considerations rather than national interests, a charge Netanyahu denies. His government could collapse if one of the parties opposed to a deal pulls out, a scenario Netanyahu would try to avoid considering his support has plummeted in opinion polls since the war began, although it has seen a slight gradual uptick.

The current deal being discussed, brokered by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, would see the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for a six-week halt in fighting as part of an initial phase, according to an Egyptian official and Israeli media. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would also be released.

Blinken, who was meeting with regional leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan before landing in Tel Aviv later Tuesday, urged Hamas on Monday to accept the latest proposal, calling it “extraordinarily generous” on Israel’s part.

But a sticking point remains over what happens next. Hamas has demanded assurances that an eventual release of all hostages will bring a complete end to Israel’s nearly seven-month assault in Gaza and a withdrawal of its troops from the devastated territory. Israel has offered only an extended pause, vowing to resume its offensive once the first phase of the deal is over. The issue has repeatedly obstructed efforts by the mediators during months of talks.

Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected stopping the war in return for hostage releases, and says an offensive on Rafah is crucial to destroying the militants.

The Israel-Hamas war was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. Israel says the militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

The war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials. The war has driven around 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes, caused vast destruction in several towns and cities, and pushed northern Gaza to the brink of famine.

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By TIA GOLDENBERG Associated Press

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