Netanyahu repeats Rafah assault threat, says civilians won’t be ‘locked in’

The Israeli leader says troops will go ahead with the ground offensive in southern Gaza, spurring fears of mass Palestinian casualties.

Children walk past the rubble of a collapsed building with a pot of food provided by a charity organisation ahead of the fast-breaking "iftar" meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Children walk past the rubble of a destroyed building with a pot of food provided by a charity organisation in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip [Said Khatib/AFP]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will not leave civilians trapped in Rafah when its forces begin a long-feared assault on the southern Gaza city where more than a million Palestinians have taken shelter.

“Our goal in eliminating the remaining terrorist battalions in Rafah goes hand in hand with enabling the civilian population to leave Rafah. It’s not something we will do while keeping the population locked in place. In fact, we’ll do the very opposite, we will enable them to leave,” Netanyahu said during a press statement in Jerusalem with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The German leader said an Israeli assault on Rafah – where a majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge from relentless Israeli bombardment – would make regional peace “very difficult”.

Netanyahu’s statement came hours after he told a cabinet meeting that Israeli troops would pursue the planned ground offensive in Rafah despite fears of mass civilian casualties.

“No amount of international pressure will stop us from realising all the goals of the war: eliminating Hamas, releasing all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat against Israel,” Netanyahu said in a video released by his office. “To do this, we will also operate in Rafah.”

Netanyahu’s comments came as talks were expected to resume in Qatar towards a truce in Gaza, where Israel has pursued a military campaign against Hamas for more than five months.

‘Threat looming in the horizon’

Al Jazeera’s Tareq Abu Azzoum, reporting from Rafah, said the Palestinians are “closely following” Netanyahu repeatedly saying he plans to invade “this very densely populated area”.

“From the Palestinian perspective, under such threat looming in the horizon, they are completely feeling unsafe, wondering about the next destination,” he said.

US President Joe Biden, whose continued support for Israel’s war despite widespread allegations of genocide, has said an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a “red line” without credible civilian protection plans in place.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington wanted a “clear and implementable plan” for Rafah to ensure civilians are “out of harm’s way”.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also on Friday appealed to Israel “in the name of humanity” not to launch an assault on Rafah – the last major population centre in Gaza yet to face a ground assault in the war triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack in southern Israel.

The attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, as Hamas took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages. Israel believes about 130 of those remain in Gaza, including 32 presumed dead.

Since October 7, Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 31,645 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry, and displaced nearly 2 million of its residents.

Elections would ‘paralyse’ Israel

Netanyahu said any Gaza peace deal that weakens Israel and leaves it unable to defend itself against hostile neighbours would be unacceptable.

A potential peace agreement “that makes Israel so weak and unable to defend itself” would “set peace backwards and not forward”, he said during his joint press appearance with Scholz.

Netanyahu also criticised “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 fueled fears of famine.

On Thursday, US Senate 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 said new elections would “stop the war and paralyse 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.”

Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in the fighting, and at least 92 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, Gaza’s health ministry said on Sunday. The dead included 12 members of the same family whose house was hit in Deir el-Balah, central Gaza.

Palestinian girl Leen Thabit, retrieving a white dress from under the rubble of her family’s flattened house, cried as she said her cousin was killed in the strike.

“She’s dead. Only her dress is left,” Thabit said. “What do they want from us?”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies