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Israeli finance minister calls for 'utter destruction' of Gaza's Rafah, end to truce talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to attack Rafah with or without a hostage deal, complicating truce talks

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for the “utter destruction” of Rafah and other cities in Gaza while slamming Israel’s ongoing hostage negotiations with Hamas.

“No half jobs. Rafah, Deir al-Balah, Nuseirat, total and utter destruction,” Smotrich said, referring to the two cities in Gaza and the Nuseirat refugee camp.

Smotrich’s remarks underscore the pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces among members of his governing coalition to press ahead with an attack on Rafah, the southern Gaza border city where over one million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

Smotrich lashed out at Israel’s government for pursuing truce talks with Hamas that could pause the fighting in return for the exchange of hostages held in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

“We are negotiating with the ones that shouldn’t have existed for a long time,” he said.

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Israel and Hamas are engaged in indirect talks brokered by Egypt and Qatar to strike a hostage deal.

Hamas officials say they are considering a plan for a 40-day ceasefire and the exchange of scores of hostages for larger numbers of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Negotiators are waiting for a written response from Hamas to the latest proposal.

But the talks have been complicated by Israel’s threat to attack Rafah - where it says four Hamas battalions are based - regardless of a deal.

“We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there with or without a deal," Netanyahu told families of some of the hostages still being held in Gaza, his office said.

On Tuesday, Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir threatened to bring down the government if Netanyahu agreed to a “reckless” hostage deal and delayed an attack on Rafah.

Neither Ben-Gvir nor Smotrich are part of Israel’s war cabinet, which holds ultimate decision planning for Israel’s war on Gaza and includes Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, and Israeli politician, Benny Gantz.

However, Netanyahu’s  government is dependent on the support of far-right lawmakers to remain in power.

Rafah assault planning

Even as Israel engages in truce talks with Hamas, it is preparing for an assault on Rafah and has been threatening to attack for months.

Israeli media has reported preparations being put in place to eject tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians who are crowded into the city, with tents being constructed in Khan Younis, around five kilometres away from Rafah.

Israel planning ring of checkpoints to prevent men from fleeing Rafah, source says
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Israel is now planning a ring of checkpoints that will separate women, children and males in order to prevent "military age" men from fleeing a Rafah assault, Middle East Eye reported on Monday, citing a senior western official familiar with Israel's military plans.

The US, its European allies and Arab powers are pushing Israel to halt its offensive and seal a truce deal with Hamas to avert a Rafah offensive.

But Israel’s threat to invade Rafah with or without a hostage deal undercuts efforts to reach a deal. Hamas has called for a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the return of forcibly displaced Palestinians to their homes.

On Tuesday, the UK's deputy foreign secretary suggested that an Israeli military offensive on Rafah "in the current circumstances" would be a violation of international humanitarian law.

Middle East Eye reached out to the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department for comment on Smotrich’s remarks but didn’t receive a reply by the time of publication.

The British Labour Party also didn’t respond to MEE’s request for comment.

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