Israel sets Ramadan deadline for offensive on Gazan city Rafah

AFP , Monday 19 Feb 2024

Israel will launch its long-threatened offensive against Rafah next month if Hamas has not freed the remaining captives held in Gaza by the start of Ramadan, Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz said.

Smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment
Smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment. AFP

 

"The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know -- if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area," Gantz, a retired military chief of staff, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem Sunday.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is expected to begin on March 10.

The Israeli government has not previously specified a deadline for its planned assault on the city where the majority of the 1.7 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge.

Fearing the potential for mass casualties, foreign governments and aid organizations have repeatedly urged Israel to spare Rafah, the last major Gazan city not invaded by ground troops during the four-month-old Israeli war on Gaza.

Despite the mounting international pressure, including a direct appeal from US President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the war cannot be completed without pressing into Rafah.

Speaking at the same Jerusalem conference on Sunday, Netanyahu renewed his vow "to finish the job to get total victory" over Hamas, with or without a captive deal.

Gantz added that an offensive would be carried out in a coordinated manner and in conversation with Americans and Egyptians to facilitate an evacuation and "minimize the civilian casualties as much as possible".

But where civilians can safely relocate to the besieged Gaza Strip remains unclear.

The comments come after weeks of ceasefire talks have failed to produce a deal, with key mediator Qatar acknowledging over the weekend that the prospects are dimming.

Washington, Israel's key ally and military backer, has been pushing for a six-week truce in exchange for the release of the 130 hostages still estimated by Israel to be held in Gaza, including around 30 presumed dead.

Israel has said it believes many of those captives, as well as the Hamas leadership, are holed up in Rafah.

The militants took about 250 people captive during the October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood operation that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza's health ministry.

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