Israel Sets March Deadline for Potential Ground Offensive in Rafah, Gaza

Benny Gantz, an Israeli war cabinet member, has issued a warning that if Hamas does not release all hostages held in Gaza by March 10, Israel will launch an offensive in Rafah. This marks the first time Israel has specified a potential entry date for its troops into Gaza’s densely populated southern city.

There is growing global opposition to an attack in Rafah, where around 1.5 million Palestinians reside. The UN public health agency reported that a crucial Gaza hospital, Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, north of Rafah, has ceased to function following an Israeli raid. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it has been denied access to assess the situation at the hospital.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the complex on Thursday, citing intelligence indicating that hostages taken by Hamas were being held there. The IDF characterizes its operation in Nasser as “precise and limited,” accusing Hamas of “cynically using hospitals for terror.”

Former defense minister Benny Gantz stated on Sunday that if the hostages taken by Hamas are not released by Ramadan, which begins on March 10 this year, the fighting will continue, including in the Rafah area. Gantz emphasized that Israel would coordinate with American and Egyptian partners to facilitate the evacuation of civilians and minimize casualties.

The Israeli war cabinet, composed of the country’s top security officials, was established in response to an attack by Hamas-led gunmen on October 7, resulting in casualties and hostages. Israel believes that Hamas still holds about 130 hostages in Gaza. Benny Gantz’s mention of Egypt has fueled speculation that Israel anticipates some Palestinians may seek refuge on the Egyptian side of the border.

However, Israeli officials have not provided details of an evacuation plan. Reports from Rafah indicate that a few people are leaving, but most are still uncertain about what to do, with three weeks remaining until the start of Ramadan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated his commitment to launching a ground assault on Rafah to eliminate Hamas gunmen, despite international pressure. Egypt and some Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, have warned of serious repercussions if Israel proceeds with an offensive in Rafah.

The U.S., a key Israeli ally, has cautioned against such a move, emphasizing that an operation without proper planning would be a disaster. Israel’s ongoing offensive against Hamas since October 7 has resulted in significant destruction in the Gaza Strip.

More than 28,400 Palestinians, predominantly women and children, have lost their lives, with over 68,000 wounded since the conflict began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. In the past 24 hours alone, the ministry reported at least 127 Palestinians killed and 205 injured. Despite ongoing hostilities, attempts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas have occurred in Cairo. However, Qatari mediators expressed limited optimism about the progress.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned sending negotiators in response to a request from U.S. President Joe Biden. Still, further discussions did not occur due to what he termed as “delusional” demands from Hamas. Hamas, in turn, has attributed the lack of progress to Israel.

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