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Israel says it will launch Rafah assault if hostages not freed by Ramadan

Israel’s defence minister has said the country will launch its threatened ground offensive against Rafah, the last place of relative safety in Gaza, if Hamas does not release its remaining Israeli hostages by the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in just under three weeks.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday.

  • As Israeli forces have expanded ground operations steadily southwards in their war against Hamas over the past four months, Rafah – situated on the border with Egypt, and before the conflict home to about 280,000 people – has become the last refuge for more than half of the strip’s population of 2.3 million.

Widespread destruction and continuing fighting across the territory, two-thirds of which is already under Israeli evacuation orders, means it is unclear how civilians are expected to flee the long-awaited offensive.

Gantz’s threat that Israel will not slow or stop its operation in Gaza comes amid stalling negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and prisoner and hostage exchanges. A major offensive in Rafah, which world leaders fear could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, during Ramadan could also serve as a trigger for further violence across Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider region.

The fasting period is often tense. Clashes in Ramadan over access to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sherif, the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, have helped to ignite wars in the past.

Arab religious and political leaders on Sunday reacted with anger to news that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had accepted the recommendations of his far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to limit access to the holy site for Palestinians during Ramadan.

  • Unusually, this year’s restrictions will also extend to Israel’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 18% of the population.
  • “Netanyahu’s decision [is a] gross blow to the freedom of religion. The man is held prisoner by the convicted terrorist Ben-Gvir over the October 7 collapse,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Knesset’s leftwing Arab Taal party, referring to the unprecedented Hamas offensive on Israel that triggered the new war.
  • “Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu are disappointed they cannot shoot Arab protesters and are looking for unrest. This is a government of pyromaniacs. The time has come for President Biden to impose sanctions on Ben-Gvir.”

Ramadan, a month of fasting culminating in Eid al-Fitr, is expected to begin on 10 March.

Security restrictions at the Temple Mount were not final and would be decided “in accordance with situation assessments”, Gantz said.

  • Netanyahu’s office said in a statement: “The prime minister has made a balanced decision that allows for religious freedom within the limits of the security needs as established by heads of the security establishment. Any reports to the contrary are false.”

Netanyahu, who fears becoming more vulnerable in his three corruption trials if he is ousted from office when the war ends, is widely believed in Israel to be prioritising the desires of his far-right coalition partners, who have repeatedly threatened to collapse his government over concessions to either Hamas or Palestinians in general.

The prime minister has also been accused of slow-walking ceasefire talks. Netanyahu said on Saturday that while he had sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo last week at Joe Biden’s request, he did not see what would be gained by sending them again.

  • While the US, Israel’s most important ally, has provided crucial military support and diplomatic cover for the Israeli war effort, relations between Biden and Netanyahu have reached a nadir over the colossal, and growing, death toll in Gaza.

A total of 29,000 Palestinians trapped in the coastal territory have been killed in the fighting.

  • About 85% of the population have been displaced from their homes, and one in four are starving, according to the UN.

The war, now in its fifth month, was triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October last year, when 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage.

Of the remaining 130 hostages still in Gaza, about 30 are presumed dead, according to Israeli officials.

Source: The Guardian