May 26, 2024
A camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt on Sunday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel once again pledged on Tuesday to launch a ground invasion into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, a move that could undermine efforts to negotiate a cease-fire agreement after seven months of war in the Palestinian enclave.

The United States, Qatar and several countries have been pushing to get a cease-fire deal, with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visiting the region and expectations rising that Hamas and Israel might be edging closer to an agreement.

But with Hamas arguing that any agreement should include an end to the war, and with right-wing politicians in Israel threatening to leave the government coalition if the long-planned incursion into Rafah is delayed, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that Israel would reserve the right to keep fighting.

“The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” he said in a meeting with the families of hostages held in Gaza, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal, in order to achieve the total victory.”

Israeli officials have said repeatedly that they plan to move into Rafah, but over the weekend, they made clear they were open to holding off if it meant they could secure the release of hostages taken when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. One official also suggested that Israel was using the threat of an imminent military maneuver to press the armed group into a hostage deal.

In anticipation of an offensive, some families in Rafah have been moving north into areas of Gaza that had already been attacked by Israeli forces, but on Tuesday, the scale of the evacuation remained unclear. As of last week, more than one million Gazans, many of them previously displaced from other parts of the territory by Israeli bombardment, were still sheltering in the city in makeshift tents.

American officials and other allies have been pressing Israel to either avoid an assault on Rafah or develop specific plans to adequately minimize civilian casualties.

On Tuesday, Mr. Blinken met with officials in Jordan to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, and to press for peace and an increase in humanitarian aid. There was no immediate reaction from the State Department to Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain spoke to Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday, his office said in a statement. The British leader “continued to push for an immediate humanitarian pause to allow more aid in and hostages out” and said that Britain’s focus was on de-escalation, it said.

For weeks, cease-fire talks had been at a standstill. But Israeli officials have said that negotiators had reduced the number of hostages they want Hamas to release during the first phase of a truce, opening up the possibility that the stalled negotiations could be revived.

A senior Hamas official said on social media on Monday that the group was studying a new Israeli proposal.

A Hamas delegation met with officials in Egypt’s intelligence service on Monday, according to a senior Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive discussions between Hamas and Egypt.

Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.

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