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"No compromise on Rafah operation": Israeli PM vows to continue fight despite global appeals

Jerusalem: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on February 17 to rising appeals from world leaders to avoid a ground operation in Rafah, remarking that doing so would mean "losing the war against Hamas," as reported by The Times of Israel.
"Those who want to prevent us from operating in Rafah are essentially telling us: 'Lose the war.' I won't let that happen," he vowed at an evening press conference in Jerusalem. "We won't capitulate to any pressure," he said.
According to The Times of Israel, Rafah, located on the Gaza-Egypt border, is the final remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory, but it also houses over a million displaced Palestinians sheltering from war.
In the previous discussions, Israel claimed that it would draw up a plan for civilians to evacuate before it enters, and believes it cannot effectively curtail Hamas without taking Rafah.
At least some of the 134 hostages remaining in Gaza are thought to be in the city. Hamas leadership is also believed to be sheltering there, as per The Times of Israel.
Netanyahu said at the press conference that he'd told US President Joe Biden that Israel will fight until "total victory," and yes, that includes action in Rafah." But the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operation in Gaza's southernmost city, he stressed, will "obviously" come only after civilians there have an opportunity "to evacuate to safe areas."
In response to a question from The Times of Israel on whether there had been plans to enter Gaza's southernmost city earlier, at the beginning of the ground offensive, and, if so, why that step had not been taken then, Netanyahu expanded on the government's efforts to cope with the refugees in Rafah.
"I won't get into our plans," the premier responded, but "there is a lot of space north of Rafah" to evacuate the civilians sheltering there. "There will be space for evacuation.
"We have to do this in an orderly fashion, and that's the instruction I've given to the IDF."
He said the large number of Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah would not ultimately be a hindrance.
The Israeli PM acknowledged international pressure not to operate in Rafah but wondered how the international community could expect Israel "to leave a quarter of Hamas's [organised fighting] force intact, in a defined territory. We won't allow that."
Netanyahu stated that everyone in the government would like to strike another hostage deal. "I also want it" and it would be "very good" if this could be achieved, he said. But he said that a new hostage deal with Hamas "does not appear very close" given the terror group's exorbitant demands.
But even if a hostage deal is reached, he stressed, Israel will eventually enter Rafah. "There is no alternative to total victory. And there is no way to achieve total victory without destroying those battalions in Rafah, and we will do so."
Netanyahu denied sidelining war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and observer Gadi Eisenkot in decisions regarding the hostage talks, as was alleged in media reports, when he decided, without consulting the pair, not to send an Israeli negotiation team back to Cairo for further talks.
As claimed in media reports, Netanyahu denied meeting war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and observer Gadi Eisenkot before making decisions about the hostage talks. Specifically, Netanyahu denied consulting the two when he chose not to send an Israeli negotiation team back to Cairo for additional talks.
He stated the war cabinet had previously agreed to rebuff Hamas's "delusional" demands, which included "demands regarding the Temple Mount, demands to end the war and leave Hamas intact, demands to withdraw from Gaza, and demands to free thousands of murderers."
Although, at Biden's request, Israel had dispatched a delegation to Cairo at the beginning of the week, "there was no change" in the Hamas position, and so "there was no point in going [back] there until we see a change."
He argued that his position reflected the war cabinet's policy, and added: "I'm running a give and take [negotiation], not a give and give."
Netanyahu continued by saying that, for the sake of maintaining national unity, he wants the emergency government to continue in place.
The prime minister also took a combative stand on international calls for progress on a Palestinian state.
The Israeli PM stated that Israel "will not capitulate to international dictates" regarding a future agreement with the Palestinians.
"An agreement will be achieved only in direct talks between the two sides, without preconditions," he said, stressing that he will continue "to firmly oppose unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood."
Netanyahu said that there would be "no greater prize for terror" after the October 7 killings than giving the Palestinians a state, and that such a move would "prevent any future peace agreement."
The October 7 attack, in which some 1,200 people were killed in a paroxysm of murder, rape and other atrocities led by the Hamas terror group, and which saw another 253 kidnapped and held hostage, distilled for many Israelis the security challenges of Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu said that Israel is working with the US president and his administration and "we appreciate the support we have received. There is a lot we agree on and there are things we disagree on. My policy is much more simple: I don't get involved in internal US politics. I do insist on the demands of our state. When it's possible, I say yes. When it's necessary, I say no."
In response to a reporter's question about the Moody's decision to downgrade Israel's credit rating for the first time ever, Netanyahu pushed back against the notion of an "economic failure" by his government.
"I don't think at all that there's been an economic failure here," he said. "Israel's macroeconomic data are very good," he said, insisting the downgrade was first and foremost due to the Israel-Hamas war and that the rating would rise again once the fighting is over.
He also addressed the prospect of elections, which opponents have said are necessary to restore trust in the government following the failures of October 7. He said a vote would be held as scheduled "in another few years."
"The last thing we need right now is elections," he said, arguing that voting for a new Knesset would divide Israelis and therefore be a boon to Hamas. "What we need now is unity."
Turning to the question of a formal announcement that Israeli residents of Gaza border communities hit on October 7 can return safely to their homes, Netanyahu said that financial arrangements had been agreed upon, and the Defence Ministry would soon issue a clear statement regarding the security situation.
"There is never a situation of 'no danger,'" he said. "But the danger of a ground invasion of the kind that happened on October 7 is not real, that's clear to you. Hamas is deep in the tunnels. Some people can always get through the fence. But that [kind of] mass military terrorist invasion is off the table. And we will not let it happen again."
As for mortar, rocket and missile fire, "it is always possible," he acknowledged, adding that Israel had destroyed a "huge proportion" of Hamas's capacities in this regard.
"I'm not saying it's impossible" for such a fire to happen, he said, but he expected any such incidents to be minimal.

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