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Netanyahu vows to ‘finish the job’ in Gaza as Ramadan deadline for Rafah mooted

Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed off growing calls to halt the military offensive in Gaza, vowing to “finish the job” as a colleague threatened to invade the southern city of Rafah if remaining Israeli hostages are not freed by Ramadan.

Israel’s government has not publicly discussed a timeline for a ground offensive on Rafah, where more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million Palestinians have sought refuge, but retired general Benny Gantz, part of Mr Netanyahu’s three-member war cabinet, represents an influential voice.

“If by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue to the Rafah area,” Mr Gantz told a conference of Jewish American leaders. Ramadan, expected to begin on March 10, is historically a tense time in the region.

Israel Palestinians US Blinken
Benny Gantz (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

As ceasefire negotiations struggle after signs of progress in recent weeks, Mr Netanyahu has called demands by Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group “delusional”.

The US, Israel’s top ally, says it still hopes to broker a ceasefire and hostage-release agreement, and envisions a wider resolution of the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack in southern Israel.

Washington also says it will veto another draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, with its UN ambassador warning against measures that could jeopardise “the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities”.

But Mr Netanyahu opposes Palestinian statehood, which the US calls a key element in a broader vision for normalisation of relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

His cabinet adopted a declaration on Sunday saying Israel “categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians” and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

The international community overwhelmingly supports an independent Palestinian state as part of a future peace agreement, but Mr Netanyahu’s government is filled with hardliners who oppose Palestinian independence.

Palestinians line up for food in Rafah
Palestinians line up for food in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)

He wants Israel to achieve “total victory” over Hamas. In response to international concern over a Rafah offensive, he has said Palestinian civilians will be evacuated. Where they will go in largely devastated Gaza is not clear.

The suggested timing for the offensive came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief said southern Gaza’s main medical centre, Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, “is not functional any more” after Israeli forces raided it last week.

Israeli strikes across Gaza continued, killing at least 18 people overnight into Sunday, according to medics and witnesses.

A strike in Rafah killed six people, including a woman and three children, and another killed five in Khan Younis, the main target of the southern Gaza offensive in recent weeks.

In Gaza City, which suffered widespread destruction early in the war, an air strike flattened a home, killing seven people, including three women, according to a relative.

Israel’s military rarely comments on individual strikes and blames civilian casualties on Hamas because the militants operate in dense residential areas.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a team was not allowed to enter Nasser Hospital on Friday or Saturday. He said about 200 patients remain, including 20 who need urgent referrals elsewhere.

Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said at least 200 militants surrendered at the hospital. He also claimed that Hamas is defeated in Khan Younis and is largely leaderless in Gaza.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 medical personnel were among those arrested, along with patients, leaving 150 patients without medical care. It said Israel refused to allow patients, including newborn babies, to be taken to other hospitals.

The military says it is looking for the remains of hostages inside Nasser Hospital and does not target doctors or patients.

The October 7 attack killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and around 250 were taken hostage. Militants still hold around 130 hostages, and a quarter of them are believed to be dead. Most of the others were released during a weeklong ceasefire in November.

The war has killed at least 28,985 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. On Sunday it said 127 bodies were taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours.

Around 80% of Gaza’s population have been displaced, and a quarter face starvation. Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, said 123 aid trucks entered Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom border crossing on Sunday and four trucks of cooking gas entered through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. That is well below the 500 trucks entering daily before the war.