Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah in southern Gaza, promising a “total victory” by Israel over Hamas in just months.
His disclosure came after a meeting with US Secretary Antony Blinken over a proposed deal by Hamas to pause fighting in the four-month-old war, which the Israeli leader called “bizarre”.
A defiant Netanyahu instead said the impact of an Israeli victory over the Palestinian militant group would be felt across the Middle East, and bring wider peace.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier said he was “alarmed” by reports the Israeli military would push on into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to escape daily bombardments.
The city’s population has now swollen to more than one million — half of the population of the Palestinian territory.
“Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” Guterres said.
But Netanyahu announced no let-up in the Israeli military’s push to root out the masterminds of Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack, which left about 1,160 dead in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli data.
Militants also seized some 250 hostages. Israel says 132 are still in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.
Israel’s relentless ground and air offensive in response has killed at least 27,708 people, again most of them ordinary people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.
Israeli troops have in recent days been focused on Khan Yunis, home of the suspected mastermind of last year’s attacks, Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar.
“We have instructed the IDF (Israeli army) to prepare to operate in Rafah and two central (refugee) camps, the last remaining strongholds of Hamas, as well,” Netanyahu said.
He added at a televised media briefing: “At the end of the day, elimination of Hamas will radiate to the entire Middle East and will allow us to expand the circle of peace with our neighbours.”
Maintaining military pressure was “an essential condition for the release of hostages”, he went on, dismissing Hamas’s proposals for a ceasefire and hostage deal.
“Surrender to the bizarre demands of Hamas… will not only not lead to the release of the hostages, it will only invite another massacre,” he added.
“It will invite a severe disaster to the state of Israel that none of our citizens is prepared to accept.”