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Netanyahu: Opponents of Rafah op telling Israel to lose war

The Israeli prime minister stressed that any unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood would be tantamount to a "prize for terrorism."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem, Feb. 17, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at his office in Jerusalem, Feb. 17, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated on Saturday night that Israel would continue its war against Hamas until “total victory” is achieved, adding that those urging Jerusalem to forgo an operation in Rafah were effectively calling for the Jewish state to lose the war.

“I speak with world leaders every day. I tell them decisively: Israel will fight until we achieve total victory. And indeed, this includes action in Rafah, of course after we allow the civilians found in the combat zones to evacuate to safe areas,” said Netanyahu in a video address to the nation.

“Whoever wants to prevent us from operating in Rafah is telling us in effect to lose the war. I will not allow this…. We will not surrender to any pressure. We will not surrender, because we are a people of heroes. We will not surrender because we are a people that desires life. We will not surrender because we must—must—defeat the evil,” he added.

The comments come after U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday demanded a temporary ceasefire to secure the release of hostages in Gaza, claiming that a deal “has to” go through before Israel launches a military operation in Rafah.

“There has to be a temporary ceasefire to get the prisoners out—to get the hostages out,” said Biden. “I’m hoping that the Israelis will not make any massive land invasion in the meantime. It’s my expectation that’s not going to happen,” he added.

Netanyahu has stressed that conquering Rafah in southernmost Gaza was essential to defeating Hamas, amid intense international pressure against the pending operation.

There are four Hamas battalions positioned in the city along the Egyptian border, the population of which has swelled to some 1.5 million, more than half of Gaza’s total of 2.3 million, after the Israel Defense Forces directed northern Gazans to a humanitarian zone there when fighting began in October.

“We are going to do it [invade Rafah] while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave,” Netanyahu said in an interview last week.

“We have worked out a detailed plan to do so. And that’s what we have done up to now. We are not cavalier about this. This is part of our war effort, to get civilians out of harm’s way. It’s part of Hamas’s effort to keep them in harm’s way. But we’ve so far succeeded and we are going to succeed again,” he said.

Netanyahu on Thursday spoke for 40 minutes with Biden, who “reaffirmed his commitment to working tirelessly to support the release of all hostages as soon as possible, recognizing their appalling situation after 132 days in Hamas captivity,” according to a White House readout of the call.

The two leaders also “discussed the situation in Gaza and the urgency of ensuring that humanitarian assistance is able to get to Palestinian civilians in desperate need. [Biden] also raised the situation in Rafah, and reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians,” per the statement.

The call followed a report by The Washington Post that the Biden administration was preparing to make a major push for Palestinian statehood. According to the report, the U.S. and its Arab partners are “rushing” to finalize a plan to establish a Palestinian state, which could be announced in the next few weeks if a prospective deal to release the remaining 134 hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza in exchange for a six-week pause in the war takes effect before Ramadan next month.

In his speech Saturday night, Netanyahu doubled down on his opposition to such eventuality, describing it as a reward for terrorism.

“An arrangement will be achieved only by direct negotiations between the parties, without pre-conditions. Under my leadership, Israel will continue to strongly oppose unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state,” said Netanyahu.

“And when do they want to give such unilateral recognition? After the terrible massacre of Oct. 7. There can be no greater and unprecedented prize to terrorism, which will also prevent any future peace agreement,” he added.

Hours later, Netanyahu’s office released a statement describing as “fake news” an Israel Hayom report claiming he was considering a “de facto” agreement with Washington to recognize a Palestinian state in exchange for normalization with Saudi Arabia.

According to the report, the Biden administration would unilaterally recognize “Palestine” while Israel would stress that a permanent agreement can only result from direct negotiations, thus creating a pathway for talks based on the two-state solution paradigm.

During his address on Saturday, Netanyahu also reemphasized his belief that strong military pressure on Hamas was the best way to secure the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza.

“The [hostages] negotiations require a strong stand. I must tell you, citizens of Israel, that up to this very moment, Hamas’s demands have been delusional and signify only one thing: The defeat of Israel,” said Netanyahu.

“Clearly, we will not agree to them. But when Hamas drops these delusional demands we will be able to move forward. I want to tell you and the hostages’ families: Not for a moment have we forgotten our obligation to return all of the hostages,” he added.

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad chief David Barnea met on Tuesday in Cairo with CIA Director Bill Burns, head of Egyptian intelligence Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.

A senior Egyptian official and a Western diplomat confirmed to the Associated Press that a six-week ceasefire was on the table, and that the summit focused on “crafting a final draft” of the proposal, with guarantees of further negotiations toward a permanent ceasefire.

Netanyahu on Saturday reaffirmed his commitment to defeating Hamas and urged the country to remain united.

“Citizens of Israel, we are on the way to victory. Our fighters demand it. The wounded demand it. The bereaved families demand it, and the vast majority of the people demand it. In order to achieve victory, we need one thing—unity, not momentary unity but genuine unity,” said the prime minister.

“Together we will fight, and—with G-d’s help—together we will win.”

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