Israel Says It Will Invade Rafah No Matter What the US Says

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(Bloomberg) -- A top Israeli official said his country’s military is ultimately going to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah and defeat Hamas “even if the entire world turns on Israel, including the United States.”

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“We are going to go in and finish this job, and anybody who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand that the existential nerve of the Jews was touched” by the Oct. 7 attack when Hamas operatives killed 1,200 and abducted 250, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer said on a US podcast posted online Thursday.

A close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dermer is headed to Washington early next week to listen to concerns from the Biden administration that such an invasion would cause many more civilian casualties at a time when famine and disease are spreading in Gaza.

Read More: Biden and Netanyahu Ease Their Feud But Suspicions Linger

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the region pushing for a deal between Israel and Hamas that would lead to a six-week cease-fire and an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners along with a big increase in humanitarian aid to the more than 2 million Palestinians in the coastal strip.

Never miss an episode. Follow the Big Take podcast on iHeart, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Read the transcript.

“We’ve been very clear — President Biden’s been very clear — that a major ground operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we can’t support,” Blinken told reporters in Cairo Thursday evening after meeting with Arab foreign ministers. “There is no place for the many civilians who are massed in Rafah to go to get out of harm’s way, and for those that inevitably remain, it would be a humanitarian disaster.”

Blinken argued that “Hamas can be effectively dealt with without a major ground operation in Rafah, and one of the reasons that we have counterparts from the Israeli government coming to Washington next week is precisely to focus on that.”

European Union leaders issued a new call Thursday for an “immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable cease-fire” in Gaza, responding to growing alarm about the risk of famine in the besieged territory. They also urged Israel not to pursue a ground operation in Rafah.

For several months, EU nations had struggled to agree on language criticizing Israel’s military operations, but a growing number of countries have been demanding a stronger stance. Thursday’s statement also said that the EU would accelerate work on additional sanctions on Hamas.

Israel went to war in Gaza right after the Hamas attack and has killed more than 31,000, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between fighters and civilians. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Israel says it has killed 11,000 fighters.

Dermer said the US hasn’t categorically rejected any Israeli military operation in Rafah.

“They said without a credible way of moving a mass of people out of Rafah and surging humanitarian assistance to them they don’t see how this can be done effectively,” he said. “And we are saying we agree with you that we have to move the people out, we agree we have to get humanitarian assistance to them, and we believe we can do it.”

Dermer said he’s going to Washington to listen to US ideas about what to do. There have been a number of disagreements between the US and Israel over strategy during the more than five months of conflict, but they worked through them in the end, he said.

“Could you have a breach over Rafah? You could. We hope we don’t.”

Famine Is Imminent in Northern Gaza, UN-Backed Report Warns

In recent weeks, especially as disease and hunger have spread in Gaza without a clear plan for aid distribution, Biden and other top US Democrats have openly criticized Netanyahu and Israeli policies. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Israel to hold new elections, a step that Netanyahu rejected.

Just as Netanyahu faces pressure from his right, Biden faces pressure from his left and each is fighting for political survival.

No invasion of Rafah appears imminent since the Washington consultations have yet to occur. Other factors such as a potential truce and the need for Israel to finalize and implement a plan to remove civilians from harm’s way and call up the thousands of troops needed for such an operation, will also affect the time-line.

Still, Dermer argued that the Hamas battalions and top leaders thought to be in Rafah — along with possibly some 100 hostages — need to be defeated so that the Islamist group can be removed from power in Gaza. Until that happens, he said, other Gazans will be afraid to step forward as leaders for a post-war enclave.

--With assistance from Kevin Whitelaw.

(Updates with EU leaders statement starting in seventh paragraph)

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