Netanyahu again vows military operation in Rafah, as Biden administration hopes for cease-fire in coming days


(JERUSALEM) — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Tuesday that Israel would proceed with a military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah “with or without a deal,” the Biden administration — which has repeatedly warned against a Rafah offensive — appears to be holding out hope for a cease-fire agreement.

“We will enter Rafah because we have no other choice,” Netanyahu said Tuesday in comments translated from Hebrew. “We will destroy the Hamas battalions there, we will complete all the objectives of the war, including the repatriation of all our hostages.”

Netanyahu said there would be an evacuation of the civilian population. No timeline has been given for an operation in Rafah, where it’s believed more than 1.4 million Palestinians have gathered in the wake of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Since the Hamas terrorist group’s unprecedented attack on Israel on Oct. 7, more than 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza and at least 77,000 others injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health. In Israel, at least 1,700 people have been killed and 8,700 others injured by Hamas and other Palestinian militants since Oct. 7, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Netanyahu said in a statement from his office Tuesday, The Associated Press reported. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there — with or without a deal, to achieve the total victory.”

President Joe Biden has previously called invading Rafah a “red line.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a trip to the Middle East in March, said a major military operation there would be a “mistake” that would result in more civilian deaths and worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

And Vice President Kamala Harris previously told ABC News in an interview that the administration was not ruling out consequences if Netanyahu went ahead with an offensive despite U.S. concerns.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby tried to steer clear of Netanyahu’s comments Tuesday.

“I’ll let the prime minister speak for himself,” Kirby told reporters. “Our position on Rafah is absolutely the same. We don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah. Certainly, we don’t want to see operations that haven’t factored in the safety and security of those 1.5 million folks trying to seek refuge down there. And we conveyed that to our Israeli counterparts certainly privately, absolutely publicly, and nothing’s changed about that.”

Meanwhile, speaking with reporters Tuesday in Jordan amid another trip to the Middle East, Blinken said he’d want to see a hostage deal come together in the “coming days.”

Blinken, who will head to Israel next, seemed to echo Kirby’s earlier comments Tuesday morning that the hostage deal has to become a reality because there’s simply no good alternative.

“Our focus right now is on getting a cease-fire and hostages home. That is the most urgent thing,” Blinken said. “It’s also, I think, what is achievable because the Israelis have put a strong proposal on the table. They’ve demonstrated that they’re willing to compromise, and now it’s on Hamas. No more delays. No more excuses. The time to act is now. So our focus is on this and we want to see in the coming days, this agreement coming together.”

The United States has repeatedly called for Israel to present a plan regarding Rafah. Vedant Patel, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, said Tuesday the U.S. still has not seen a humanitarian plan presented by Israel and that it continues to oppose large-scale offensive operations in the Rafah region.

“We have been unambiguous about the concerns that we have when it comes to the more than a million people seeking refuge in that region,” Patel said. “So any kind of operation that does not address these concerns would be a nonstarter for us.”

Israel will not send a delegation to Cairo until Hamas provides an answer on the proposal Israel has offered them, an Israeli source told ABC News on Tuesday.

During a weeklong cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in late November, Hamas freed more than 100 people. In exchange, Israel released more than 200 Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

There are 129 hostages still believed to be held in Gaza, according to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of the 129, at least 34 are believed to be dead, with their bodies still held by Hamas in Gaza, Israeli officials say.

ABC News’ Anne Flaherty, Molly Nagle and Jordana Miller contributed to this report.

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