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Hostage deal will not stop Rafah invasion, Netanyahu warns

Protesters hit with water cannons during clashes with security forces during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv
Protesters hit with water cannons during clashes with security forces at an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv - ALEXI ROSENFELD/GETTY IMAGES

Benjamin Netantyahu has said a hostage deal with Hamas would not stop the Israeli invasion of Rafah, as the two sides edged closer to a temporary ceasefire agreement.

The prime minister of Israel said a deal was on the table after negotiations in Paris on Saturday, but that the terror group’s demands were currently on “another planet”.

The talks began with “crazy demands” that Israel would not agree to, he told CBS on Sunday.

“It’s too soon to say if they’ve abandoned them, but if they do abandon them and get into what you call the ballpark…they’re not even in the city. They’re on another planet,” he said.

“But if they come down to a reasonable situation then, yes, we’ll have a hostage deal. I hope so.”

Ronen Bar and David Barnea, Israel’s two intelligence chiefs, and officials from the US, Egypt and Qatar held talks in Paris on Saturday. Negotiations are expected to continue next week in Qatar.

The framework agreement would reportedly involve a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the release of up to 40 hostages.

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will be released, some of whom have been convicted of killing Israelis, according to US news site Axios.

A limited number of Palestinians will be allowed to return to northern Gaza, while humanitarian aid will be significantly increased, it reported.

People gather outside HaKirya base in Tel Aviv, which serves as the IDF’s headquarters, to demand the return of hostages held by Hamas
People gather outside HaKirya base in Tel Aviv, which serves as the IDF’s headquarters, to demand the return of hostages held by Hamas - ROY ROCHLIN/GETTY IMAGES

US, Arab and other mediators have voiced hope a deal can be reached before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan around March 10, a date that was previously given by Israel as a deadline before it invaded Rafah.

However, Mr Nethanyahu said that a hostage deal would only delay the controversial offensive, not cancel it.

“If we have a deal, it’l be delayed somewhat, but it’ll happen,” he said. “If we don’t have a deal, we’’ll do it anyway. It has to be done. Because total victory is our goal, and total victory is within reach. Not months away, weeks away once we begin the operation.”

It comes as Israel’s military proposed a plan on Monday for evacuating civilians from the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s military “presented the War Cabinet with a plan for evacuating the population from areas of fighting in the Gaza Strip, and with the upcoming operational plan”, a statement in Hebrew from Netayahu’s office said on Monday.

The statement did not give any details about how or where the civilians would be moved.

Israel has said four of Hamas’s 24 battalions are sheltering in Rafah from IDF forces in the north of Gaza.

The US, along with other world leaders and major aid groups, has warned that an offensive in the southern city, currently home to around 1.5 million Gazans who have fled as far south as possible, would lead to a humanitarian disaster unless it is evacuated.

Mr Biden has reportedly told Mr Netanyahu to find a “credible and executable plan” to protect Palestinian civilians.

Israeli official claims Hamas had ‘dropped some of its demands’ following pressure by Benjamin Netanyahu (centre), the prime minister
Israeli official claims Hamas had ‘dropped some of its demands’ following pressure by Benjamin Netanyahu (centre), the prime minister - KOBI GIDEON/SHUTTERSTOCK

On Sunday, the Israeli prime minister dismissed concerns about Washington’s support, arguing that “the US agrees with us on the goal of destroying Hamas and on the goal of releasing the hostages”.

“The decisions of how to do that are left with us, and with me and the elected cabinet of Israel,” he said.

He also criticised Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, who last month floated the prospect of the international recognition of a Palestinian state.

“If people try to foist it on us, it will be a terrible mistake, because it would be seen as a reward for terror, after the most atrocious attack committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” he said.

“[The] people of Israel are not going to buy it, and if you want peace, you shouldn’t go that route.”

Micky Zohar, the Israeli minister of culture, told The Telegraph that the Israeli army is “ready to start the war at Rafah”.

“The terror organisation Hamas needs to decide if it agrees to a deal to release hostages before we enter there,” he said.

Bring them home

Tzachi Hanegbi, the national security advisor, told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 on Saturday that a deal with Hamas must include a return of all hostages, and that the temporary ceasefire could “under no condition be interpreted as an end to the war”.

Hamas is yet to officially comment on the details of the proposal, but has previously stated that any ceasefire with Israel must be long-term and include a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

The Israeli army continued to strike both southern, central and northern Gaza over the weekend, with dozens of Palestinians killed, according to local media. Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed over the course of the war. Israel claims that 12,000 of those are Hamas fighters.

Israel announced it had arrested more than 200 “terror suspects” at the Nasser hospital in southern Gaza in the past week.

Some 134 hostages are thought to remain in Gaza, with about 50 presumed dead, according to a report in the New York Times.

Released hostages from the November ceasefire have testified that some of the women still held captive in Gaza are being sexually assaulted.

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated across Israel on Saturday evening in protest of the government’s handling of the hostage crisis. Twenty-one people were arrested and several injured in Tel Aviv, where police used water cannons and mounted police officers to disperse demonstrations.

Families of hostages have long accused the government of abandoning their loved ones by refusing to compromise on its terms for a deal, while calling on Mr Netanyahu to resign.

Betzalel Smotrich, the Israeli finance minister, caused uproar earlier this week when he told Israeli public broadcaster KAN that returning the hostages from Gaza “isn’t the most important thing” for Israel and that a deal shouldn’t be made “at any price”.