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Netanyahu says ‘no way’ to eliminate Hamas without Rafah operation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained defiant Tuesday in the face of mounting U.S. pressure to abandon plans to invade Rafah, vowing to press ahead with an attack on the southern Gaza city, where more than 1 million displaced people have fled since the start of the war.

In remarks to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Netanyahu acknowledged the pressure — including from Washington — which he said Israel is “rejecting in order to achieve the goals of the war.”

His comments, which were released by his office, came a day after he spoke by phone with President Biden, who summoned an Israeli team to Washington for consultation over the assault.

They were a signal of the growing chasm between the United States and Israel over its handling of the war in Gaza, which has left more than 31,800 Palestinians dead, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said March 19 that he’s determined to carry out a ground attack on Rafah despite growing international pressure. (Video: Reuters)

The entirety of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million faces acute food insecurity and needs immediate aid, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday. It was the highest-level endorsement by a U.S. official of a report released Monday by the world’s leading body on food emergencies.

The report, from a cluster of international organizations and charities known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative, or IPC, said Gaza is facing catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation. Famine may already be happening in northern Gaza, which is cut off from the southern half of the territory, the report said.

Aid workers and Western officials remain deeply skeptical that there is a way to protect civilians during an assault on Rafah, where much of the aid coming in is inspected.

But Israel appears unswayed. Netanyahu said that he “made it as clear as possible” to Biden that there is “no way” to eliminate remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah “without a ground incursion.”

“We see no way to eliminate Hamas militarily without destroying these remaining battalions. We are determined to do this,” he said.

The prime minister’s office said Tuesday that Israel’s delegation to the United States would include Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, noting pointedly that they would be sent “so that the fighting can continue.”

A representative from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would accompany them, the statement said. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the visit would probably take place early next week.

The tensions over Rafah come as new cease-fire talks are underway in Qatar, with hopes that mediators can get Israel and Hamas to agree to a deal that includes a pause in fighting for the release of some hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, cautioned Tuesday that any attack on Rafah would derail the delicate negotiations. He said that Qatar is “cautiously optimistic” after a restart in talks but said that a deal does not appear imminent.

David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, departed the Qatari capital, Doha, on Tuesday, Ansari confirmed, leaving an Israeli team in place to continue discussions.

It is a particularly “crucial time,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser to Netanyahu. “If the negotiations end without a deal, Israel will go immediately to Rafah,” Amidror said in his assessment of Israel’s planning around the talks.

“If it ends with a deal, Israel will wait, and then we’ll go to Rafah,” he added. “We know Hamas will be better prepared, but we are ready to pay the price.”

Amidror said that Israel does not want to see Palestinian residents return to the north during any cease-fire, as Hamas appears to be attempting to regroup in previously cleared areas. He pointed to Israel’s raid on al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Monday.

The IDF said it killed 50 militants and arrested over 180 “suspects” during the operation at the hospital.

Israeli forces remained in the hospital compound Tuesday, according to Mahmoud Basal, spokesman for Gaza’s civil defense. “There has been continuous, nonstop bombing throughout the day,” Basal said, adding that it had been impossible to reach residents making distress calls.

“Twenty houses have been bombed daily since yesterday, in addition to shelling and shooting in the streets,” he said.

In the call Monday, Biden said that any effort to “smash” into Rafah would be a mistake, and that Israel and the United States, it’s principal military and diplomatic backer, had arrived at a “key strategic moment,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that day.

Biden, Sullivan said, told Netanyahu that while he shared the goal of defeating Hamas, Israel needed to develop a “coherent and sustainable strategy to make that happen” without risking more civilian deaths and devastation in Gaza and the possibility of long-term peace.

Netanyahu, Sullivan said, agreed to Biden’s request to send a team of his top military, intelligence and humanitarian officials to sit down with administration officials. In the meeting, the United States will “lay out an alternative approach that would target key Hamas elements … without a major ground invasion,” he said.

“Out of respect for the president,” Netanyahu said, “we agreed on a way in which they can present us with their ideas, especially on the humanitarian side. Of course, we fully share this desire to facilitate an orderly exit of the population and the providing of humanitarian aid,” he said, referring to the more than 1 million civilians crowded into Rafah, most of whom have fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations have said there is nowhere safe for those people to go, that no preparations have been made to relocate them and that any forcible displacement would be a violation of international law.

Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, on Tuesday blamed starvation in Gaza on Israel’s “extensive restrictions on the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid and commercial goods, displacement of most of the population, as well as the destruction of crucial civilian infrastructure.”

“This catastrophe is human-made and was entirely preventable,” he said.

Morris reported from Berlin, DeYoung from Washington and Balousha from Amman, Jordan. Michael Birnbaum in Manila contributed to this report.

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