Israel PM says 'intense' phase of Gaza war nearing end

The military seized the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, a key conduit for desperately needed aid into Gaza that has remained shut since then

Published - June 24, 2024 05:03 am IST - Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territories

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. File

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. File | Photo Credit: ABIR SULTAN

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that "intense" fighting against Hamas militants in the southern Gaza city of Rafah is nearly over, more than eight months into the devastating war.

"The intense phase of the fighting against Hamas is about to end," Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 14 network, without providing a clear timeline.

"It doesn't mean that the war is about to end, but the war in its intense phase is about to end in Rafah."

Israeli officials have described Rafah as the last Hamas stronghold in the Gaza Strip, and in early May troops entered the southern city, on the besieged territory's border with Egypt, despite global alarm over the fate of Palestinian civilians sheltering there.

The military seized the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, a key conduit for desperately needed aid into Gaza that has remained shut since then.

Netanyahu's interview -- his first with Israeli media since the war began with Hamas's October 7 attack -- was broadcast as his defence minister arrived in Washington for talks on the Gaza war and surging cross-border tensions with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.

On the ground in Gaza City, in the north of the Palestinian territory, Israeli bombardment continued on Sunday with medics and the civil defence agency in the Hamas-ruled territory reporting deadly strikes.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has traded daily cross-border fire with Israel's army, heightening fears of all-out war particularly over the past two weeks.

Netanyahu said that "after the end of the intense phase" in the Gaza Strip, Israel would "redeploy some forces to the north... primarily for defensive purposes".

- 'Civilian administration' -

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant's visit to Washington, which he said would include meetings that are "critical to this war", follows public statements by Netanyahu concerning US military aid which have added strains to ties with the White House.

Netanyahu has accused Israel's close ally and biggest military supplier of freezing some arms and ammunition deliveries during the war, which US officials have strongly rejected.

As he prepared to depart for Washington, Gallant said: "Our ties with the United States are more important than ever".

Netanyahu, who has faced growing pressure from Israeli demonstrators demanding a deal to free hostages still held in Gaza, said he would not agree to any deal that includes a permanent ceasefire -- one of Hamas's key demands in stalled mediation efforts for a truce.

"The goal is to return the kidnapped and uproot the Hamas regime in Gaza," he said.

When asked about post-war scenarios for Gaza, Netanyahu said it was "clear" that Israel would maintain "military control in the foreseeable future".

"We also want to create a civilian administration, if possible with local Palestinians" and regional backing "to manage humanitarian supply and later on civilian affairs in the Strip", Netanyahu added.

Similar proposals Netanyahu had presented to his ministers in February were swiftly rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and prompted US warnings against the "Israeli reoccupation of Gaza".

Two members of Netanyahu's war cabinet, former military chiefs Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, left the government earlier this month over the lack of post-war plans.

- War 'must stop' -

In Gaza, Israeli forces kept striking targets and battling Hamas.

In Gaza City, medics at Al-Ahli hospital told AFP that at least five people were killed in an Israeli air strike on a facility of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

The Israeli military said its jets struck militants who "operated from within buildings that previously served as an UNRWA headquarters"

There was no immediate comment from UNRWA, whose facilities have come under attack before.

Some UNRWA buildings have been turned into shelters for displaced Palestinians during the war.

An early morning air raid on a family home elsewhere in Gaza City killed at least seven people, the civil defence agency said.

The October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,598 people, also mostly civilians, Gaza's health ministry said.

"This war must stop," said Umm Siraj al-Balawi, struggling to survive in a makeshift shelter amid a field of rubble, with strung-up sheets protecting her young children from the blazing sun.

But despite the needs, "delivery of any meaningful humanitarian assistance inside Gaza has become almost impossible and the very fabric of civil society is unravelling," the European Union said in a statement.

As the war has raged on, Israeli protesters have taken to the streets week after week demanding greater efforts to bring home the remaining hostages.

In his Sunday interview, Netanyahu said that if his rule ends, "a left-wing government will... establish a Palestinian state", dubbing it a threat to "our existence".

In Lebanon, Hezbollah said it had targeted military positions in northern Israel with attack drones, after an Israeli strike in eastern Lebanon killed the commander of another armed group, Jamaa Islamiya.

After the Israeli military said plans for a Lebanon offensive had been approved, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah responded that no part of Israel would be spared in the event of a full-scale war.


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