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Netanyahu dismisses U.S. threat to withhold weapons if Israel launches full Rafah assault | CBC News

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Israeli forces bombarded areas of Rafah on Thursday, Palestinian residents said, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed U.S. President Joe Biden’s threat to withhold weapons from the country if it assaults the southern Gaza city.

A senior Israeli official said late Thursday that the latest round of indirect negotiations in Cairo to halt hostilities in Gaza had ended, and that Israel would proceed with its operation in Rafah and other parts of the Gaza Strip as planned.

Israel has submitted to mediators its reservations about a Hamas proposal for a hostage release deal, the official said.

“If we must, we shall fight with our fingernails,” Netanyahu said in a video statement. “But we have much more than our fingernails.”

In Gaza, Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad said their fighters fired anti-tank rockets and mortars at Israeli tanks massed on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Israel says Hamas militants are hiding in Rafah

Israel says Hamas militants are hiding in Rafah, where the population has increased by hundreds of thousands of Gazans seeking refuge from the bombardments that have reduced most of the coastal enclave to ruins.

People walk with belongings past the rubble of destroyed buildings in the Zaytoun neighbourhood of Gaza City on Thursday, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (AFP/Getty Images)

In the United States, the White House repeated its hope that Israel would not launch a full operation in Rafah, saying it did not believe that doing so would advance Israel’s aim of defeating Hamas.

U.S. doubts on ‘smashing into Rafah’

“Smashing into Rafah, in [President Biden’s] view, will not advance that objective,” spokesperson John Kirby said.

Kirby said Israel had significantly pressured Hamas, and that there were better options to hunt down what remains of the group’s leadership than an operation with significant risk to civilians.

WATCH | Biden concerned about Rafah operation: 

Biden says Israel won’t get certain U.S. munitions if Rafah’s ‘population centers’ are invaded

In an exclusive interview with CNN, U.S. President Joe Biden says his country will continue to support Israel’s defensive capabilities, including with the Iron Dome — but says he made it clear to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. wouldn’t send certain weapons and artillery if they invade ‘population centres’ in Rafah.

Israel’s assault on Gaza has killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians and wounded nearly 80,000, most of them civilians, the health ministry in Gaza said.

Israel launched its offensive in response to a cross-border attack led by Hamas militants on Israel on Oct. 7, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 252 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. Some 128 hostages remain in Gaza and 36 have been declared dead, according to the latest Israeli figures.

Biden, who says Israel has not produced a convincing plan to safeguard civilians in Rafah, issued his starkest warning yet against a full ground invasion.

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah … I’m not supplying the weapons,” Biden told CNN in an interview on Wednesday.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States said the decision to withhold weapons from Israel over Rafah sends the “wrong message” to Hamas and the country’s foes.

“It puts us in a corner because we have to deal with Rafah one way or the other,” Ambassador Michael Herzog told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace webinar.

The Israeli military has the munitions it requires for operations in Rafah and other planned operations, chief armed forces spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.

Israeli armed forces have already killed 50 Palestinian gunmen in east Rafah and uncovered several tunnels, Hagari said. Hamas had no immediate comment.

Floating pier sets sail

Also Thursday, a vessel carrying aid to a floating pier built by the U.S. off Gaza set sail, officials in Cyprus said.

The U.S.-flagged Sagamore left the port of Larnaca in Cyprus on Thursday morning. U.S. officials have said the vessel will be used to offload supplies onto a floating pier built to expedite aid into the besieged enclave.

A commercial ship is shown at a distance travelling across a body of water.
A U.S.-flagged cargo vessel carrying aid to a pier built off the coast of Gaza sets sail from Larnaca, Cyprus, early Thursday. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the journey would take.

Cyprus opened a sea corridor in March to ship aid directly to Gaza, where deliveries via land have been severely disrupted by border closures and Israel’s military offensive.

Biden announced that the U.S. military would be building a floating pier to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries just over two months ago, in his State of the Union speech.

End to talks

In Cairo, delegations from Hamas, Israel, the U.S., Egypt and Qatar had been meeting since Tuesday. The talks in Egypt’s capital made some headway, but no deal was reached, according to two Egyptian security sources.

Izzat El-Risheq, a member of Hamas’s political office in Qatar, said the Hamas delegation had left Cairo, having reaffirmed its approval of the mediators’ ceasefire proposal. The plan entails the release of Israeli hostages held captive in Gaza and a number of Palestinians jailed by Israel.

Hamas blames Israel for the lack of agreement, and its Al-Aqsa TV’s Telegram account said the group would not make any concessions beyond those in the proposal it had accepted.

Israel has said it is open to a truce, but has rejected demands for an end to the war.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington continued to engage with Israel on amendments to a ceasefire proposal, adding work to finalize the text of an agreement was “incredibly difficult.”

Two people waving Israeli flags are shown standing in front of a large truck.
People holding Israeli flags are shown Thursday as they try to stop trucks carrying humanitarian aid from entering the Gaza Strip, in an area near the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and Gaza. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Israeli tanks seized the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday, cutting off a vital aid route and forcing 80,000 people to flee the city this week, according to the United Nations.

Medical system under pressure

Israel kept up tank and aerial strikes across Gaza and advanced in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City in the north, forcing hundreds of families to flee, residents said. The Israeli military said it was securing Zeitoun, starting with a series of intelligence-based aerial strikes on approximately 25 militant targets.

Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza was heaving with people who had fled Rafah in recent days. Palestinian medics said two people, including a woman, were killed when a drone fired a missile at a group of people there.

The closure of the Rafah crossing with Egypt has prevented the evacuation of the wounded and sick, as well as the entry of medical supplies, food trucks and fuel needed to operate hospitals, the Gaza health ministry said on Thursday.

WATCH | Doctors work in dire circumstances in Gaza: 

Doctor fears for Gaza’s hospitals as Israel takes control of Rafah crossing

Dr. Mohammad Abu Skhil, who works at the Kuwait Hospital in Rafah, says he’s worried that critical medical supplies will be cut off after the Israel Defence Forces took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing.

The only kidney dialysis centre in the Rafah area had stopped operating due to the shelling.

“The entire medical sector has collapsed,” said Ali Abu Khurma, a Jordanian surgeon volunteering at Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said that for three consecutive days, “nothing and no one has been allowed in or out of Gaza.”

“It means no aid. Our supplies are stuck. Our teams are stuck. Civilians in Gaza are being starved and killed, and we are prevented from helping them. This is Gaza today, even after 7 months of horrors,” Griffiths posted on X.

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