Netanyahu says Israel to press on with Rafah assault plan


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would keep on with the military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, where aid agencies say famine is looming, while ceasefire talks were set to resume.

Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting that Israel would push into Rafah, the last relatively safe place in the tiny, crowded Gaza enclave after more than five months of war, despite international pressure for Israel to avoid civilian casualties.

"We will operate in Rafah. This will take several weeks, and it will happen," he said, without clarifying if he meant the assault would last for weeks or would begin in weeks.

Netanyahu later said after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Jerusalem that Israel would not leave civilians trapped in Rafah when its forces begin their assault.

Israel's allies have piled pressure on Netanyahu not to attack Rafah without a plan to protect civilians.

In Washington, at a St Patrick's Day event at the White House with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, US President Joe Biden stressed the need to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza and get a ceasefire deal that brings Hamas-led hostages home. Biden said a move towards a two-state solution was "the only path for lasting peace and security".

Varadkar said the people of Gaza desperately needed food, medicine and shelter. "Most especially, they need the bombs to stop. This has to stop on both sides, the hostages brought home, and humanitarian relief allowed in," he said.

Varadkar said Israel must reverse its "precipitous" decision to authorise a land incursion into Rafah.

Speaking to Fox News, Netanyahu said a Palestinian state would be "the greatest reward for terrorism in history".

Hamas fighters killed 1,200 people and seized 253 hostages in the October 7 attack according to Israeli tallies, triggering a massive assault on Gaza.

Israel's air and ground campaign since has killed more than 31,600 people say health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza. It has also driven most of the population from their homes, and brought people to the brink of famine, aid agencies say.

A source familiar with truce talks in Qatar told Reuters the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency would join the delegation attending the negotiations with Qatari, Egyptian and US mediators.

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