Israel threatens to expand Rafah operation as US struggles to revive talks

Israel threatened to expand its military operation in Rafah after tanks and troops seized the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, as international mediators struggled to continue talks aimed at ending the conflict.

Israel launched its ground offensive into eastern Rafah on Monday, hours after Hamas said it had accepted a draft proposal of a hostage-for-ceasefire deal that would lead to an initial six-week pause in the seven month war in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday the proposal fell “very far from Israel’s necessary requirements” and was “intended to torpedo the entry of our forces into Rafah”.

But his government dispatched a team of negotiators to Cairo on Tuesday to continue talks, which are being mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, said the operation in Rafah to “eliminate Hamas”, the organisation’s last holdout in the besieged strip, would continue “until the first hostage returns”.

“We are willing to make compromises in order to bring back hostages, but if that option is removed, we will go on and ‘deepen’ the operation,” Gallant said.

“This will happen all over the [Gaza] strip — in the south, in the centre and in the north. Hamas only responds to force, so we will intensify our actions,” he added.

The incursion into Rafah sent panic through the more than 1mn Gazans who have sought sanctuary in the southern city. It also drew condemnation from the EU, Arab states and UN aid agencies, which have warned of the dire humanitarian consequences of any assault.

The Biden administration, which has become increasingly public in its criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war, has held up two shipments of precision weapons to Israel, according to people familiar with the matter.

It was not immediately clear if the move was related to the Rafah offensive, against which Washington has repeatedly cautioned Netanyahu.

The White House has declined to comment on whether it has delayed any weapons sales to Israel. On Tuesday, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: “Our commitment to Israel’s security remains ironclad.” 

The stalling of the arms sale is informal, using bureaucratic processes, the people familiar with the matter said.

Such a move would mark the first known time that the US has held up a potential weapons sale since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and the Jewish state launched its retaliatory offensive against the militant group in Gaza.

An Israeli military official described the offensive in Rafah as a “precise and limited operation”.

But aid agencies expressed alarm on Tuesday about the effect that Israel’s seizure of the Rafah crossing, which has for now halted aid deliveries, would have on humanitarian provision. Gaza has for months been suffering acute shortages of basic necessities, including food.

The other main crossing into the strip, Kerem Shalom, has also been temporarily closed after a fatal Hamas mortar attack on Israeli soldiers near the border at the weekend.

Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian office, said preventing the entry of fuel for a significant period would put “the humanitarian operation in its grave”.

On Monday, Hamas said it had broadly accepted a proposal to free hostages and secure a temporary ceasefire in the seven-month war. The Palestinian militant group quoted Ismail Haniyeh, its Doha-based political leader, as saying he had informed officials from Qatar and Egypt, which have been mediating the talks alongside the US.

The details of what Hamas had agreed to in the hostage release proposal were not immediately clear, but a diplomat briefed on the talks said the proposal was broadly similar to the one put forward by international mediators about two weeks ago.

That plan included calls for the initial six-week pause in the war during which Hamas would release 33 hostages, including women, children, the elderly and wounded.

This would be followed by what mediators hoped would be an extended ceasefire, during which the remaining hostages would be freed. Israel would release Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, allow Gazans to return to their homes in the enclave’s north and enable a surge of humanitarian aid.

Israeli officials say Hamas is holding 132 hostages and believe 37 of them are dead.

Mediators have for months been facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas for a second round of hostage-for-prisoner swaps, following one in November. The talks had been stalled as Hamas demanded that any agreement end with a permanent ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, which Israel has repeatedly rejected.

“A close assessment of the two sides’ positions suggests that they should be able to close the remaining gaps and we’re going to do everything we can to support that process and achieve that outcome,” Kirby said on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, President Joe Biden had said his administration was still “working around the clock” to help broker a deal. 

Netanyahu has vowed to eliminate Hamas after the group killed about 1,200 people and seized 250 hostages in its October 7 invasion of southern Israel, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive on Gaza has killed almost 35,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

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