Israel ‘will suspend Rafah operation if Hamas agrees hostage deal’

The decision will be made by ‘crazy killer’, Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, said Israel’s Foreign Minister


Israelis attend a rally calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza (Photo: Flash90)

An imminent military operation in Rafah will be suspended if a hostage release deal is secured, Israel’s Foreign Minister has announced.

Israel Katz said on Saturday that the offensive would be called off if Hamas agrees to the deal, stressing that freeing the remaining hostages snatched by the terror group on October 7 was the government’s “top priority”.

“The release of the hostages is the top priority for us,” Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet told Israel’s Channel 12. He added: “If there will be a deal, we will suspend the operation” in the last Hamas bastion in southernmost Gaza.

Katz is not a member of the war cabinet overseeing the operation in Gaza, which today entered its 205th day.

“We will do everything possible to return the abductees, without harming the achievements of the war for which soldiers fell,” Katz said, emphasising that increased military pressure on Hamas raises the prospects of a deal.

Israeli forces are preparing for the Rafah offensive to eliminate four of the final six Hamas battalions, which the government says is essential to defeating the terror group.

Katz also praised the Egyptians for their role in mediating hostage release talks, while suggesting that Hamas’s patron Qatar has not played a constructive part.

“This [Egypt] is a country with which we have a peace agreement, and also common interests. [Cairo] really does everything it can to help,” he said.

Regarding Doha’s role, Katz said he “doesn’t want to hand out a grade.”

Cairo and Washington have in recent days ramped up pressure on Hamas to accept a hostage release deal, according to the London-based international Arab newspaper Asharq Al–Awsat.

The Egyptian interlocutors reportedly told Hamas that the proposal on the table was the best deal they would be offered and if it is rejected, then Israel has legitimacy to go into Rafah, which borders Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt is reportedly pushing for a phased deal, with the first stage seeing the hostages released in exchange for a ceasefire and issues such as the end of fighting and control of Gaza worked out in the second stage.

The new prisoner swap deal under discussion includes significant compromises by Israel and that for the first time, Netanyahu’s government is willing to hold discussions on ending the war in Gaza during the next stages of negotiations, according to Barak Ravid, an Israeli journalist writing for the US news site Axios.

Hamas said on Saturday that it had received Israel’s official response to the latest proposal and will study it before submitting a reply. The terror group rejected earlier proposals, sticking to demands - branded “delusional,” by Netanyahu - that Israel end the war, withdraw troops and allow Gazans to the northern Strip.

Meanwhile, international pressure is increasing on Hamas to accept a deal, with the United States and 17 other countries including the UK sending a joint message last week urging the terror group to release all the hostages to end the Gaza crisis.

While domestic pressure from a resurgent protest movement against the Netanyahu government has focused on Israeli efforts to secure a deal to return the hostages, Katz blamed the Hamas terror leader in Gaza and the mastermind of October 7, Yahya Sinwar, saying that the decision will be made by “the crazy killer who sits in Gaza”.

Israel was not alone in blaming Hamas for the impasse in negotiations, he added: “The United States blames Hamas and Sinwar that there is no deal,” Katz said. “The unfair attempts to blame Prime Minister Netanyahu…are not true.”

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