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Israel will invade Gaza's Rafah 'with or without' a hostage deal, Netanyahu says

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel will invade Rafah "with or without a deal" to release the remaining hostages held captive in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Tuesday.

"The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal — in order to achieve the total victory," Netanyahu said, according to a statement released by his office.

More than a million displaced Palestinians have fled to Rafah, the city along the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt. For months, Israel's military has vowed to stage an offensive there in order to combat what it says are Hamas operatives and infrastructure located there.

Fearing a high civilian death toll and a worsening of Gaza's already dire humanitarian situation, aid groups and international leaders, including the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, have urged Israel to scale back its plans or cancel the offensive entirely. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's military offensive since Oct. 7, health officials in Gaza say.

Meanwhile, negotiations mediated by Egypt over a potential cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas have raised hopes about the release of some or all of the remaining hostages in exchange for a sequence of cease-fires and the release of Palestinian detainees held by Israel. (On Oct. 7, militants led by Hamas killed some 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped around 240 others, more than 100 of whom were released during a seven-day ceasefire in November.)

Netanyahu, whose position as prime minister is dependent on a political coalition with ministers even further to his right, now faces increasing pressure from all sides on the possibility of a deal.

"A military assault on Rafah would be an unbearable escalation, killing thousands more civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee," said United Nations Secretary-General Guterres on Tuesday. "I appeal for all those with influence over Israel to do everything in their power to prevent it."

On Sunday, Israeli far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Netanyahu's war cabinet, said on the social media site X that agreeing to a deal would be a "humiliating surrender" and an "immediate existential threat" to the state of Israel.

"If you decide to raise the white flag," Smotrich warned, addressing Netanyahu directly, "your government will not have the right to exist."

Fellow hardliner Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, made a similar threat Tuesday. "I warned the prime minister, if God forbid Israel does not enter Rafah, if God forbid we end the war, if God forbid there will be a reckless deal," he said in a video statement. "I think the prime minister understands very well what it will mean if these things do not take place."

If right-wing parties withdraw their support for Netanyahu, the prime minister will be forced to form a new coalition in order to stay in power. (Opposition leader Yair Lapid has previouslyoffered to serve as a political lifeline for Netanyahu in order to reach a deal to free the hostages.)

Protesters in Tel Aviv call for Netanyahu to agree to a deal with Hamas in order to free the 133 remaining hostages captive in Gaza, dozens of whom are believed to be dead.
Amir Levy / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Protesters in Tel Aviv call for Netanyahu to agree to a deal with Hamas in order to free the 133 remaining hostages captive in Gaza, dozens of whom are believed to be dead.

In Israel, perhaps no voices have been more popularly powerful than those of the families of the hostages who remain held in Gaza. Of those who were kidnapped on Oct. 7, there are 133 still captive, dozens of whom are believed to be dead, according to the Israeli government.

Hamas has released two hostage videos over the past week, pressing its own lever to raise pressure in the negotiations. In the videos, three of the remaining hostages — two of them American citizens — are seen alive.

The videos have reignited outrage in Israel. Protests calling for new elections drew massive crowds in Tel Aviv Saturday.

At a press conference Monday, the families of two hostages urged Netanyahu and the rest of his war cabinet to reach an agreement.

"If our government and Hamas cannot come to a deal now, it's many, many, many steps backward. And no one can afford that — not Israel, not Hamas, not Gaza, not the Middle East, not the world," said Lee Siegel, 72, the brother of Keith Siegel, an American-Israeli man kidnapped from kibbutz Kfar Aza on Oct. 7 along with his wife, Aviva, who was released during the November cease-fire.

When Aviva was released, the family had felt hopeful that Keith, who's now 64 years old, would be released soon after. Instead, negotiations fell apart and Israel resumed its military campaign. Keith has now been a hostage for more than 200 days.

Other family members had more fiery words for the right-wing ministers who have threatened to pull their support for the government should Netanyahu refuse a deal to free the hostages.

"I suggest that Smotrich take off his kippah and stop saying that he's Jewish, because those are not the values of Judaism that I was raised on," said Dani Miran, whose son Omri appeared in a video this week.

Separately, in an English-language video statement released Tuesday, Netanyahu decried reports that the International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials on charges related to the war on Hamas.

"This would be an outrage of historic proportions," Netanyahu said, evoking the roots of the international criminal court system in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

To issue an arrest warrant would be to "will pour jet fuel on the fire of antisemitism, those fires that are already raging on the campuses of America and across capitals around the world," he said.

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Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.