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Israel plans to move ahead with military offensive in south Gaza

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s defense minister on Friday said Israel is “thoroughly planning” a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, signaling determination to move ahead despite growing international concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge there.

President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to carry out the operation without a “credible” plan to protect civilians and to instead focus on a cease-fire, while Egypt has said an operation could threaten diplomatic relations between the countries.

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, have crammed into Rafah, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory. Hundreds of thousands are living in sprawling tent camps.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel has inflicted heavy losses on Hamas during a war that is now in its fifth month and that Rafah is “the next Hamas center of gravity” Israel plans to target.

“We are thoroughly planning future operations in Rafah, which is a significant Hamas stronghold,” he said.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel not to push Palestinian civilians in Rafah across the border, saying a mass influx could lead to the end of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

While some Israeli hard-liners have called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, Gallant said there were no plans to do so.

“We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

New satellite photos, however, indicate that Egypt is preparing for that very scenario. The images show Egypt building a wall and leveling land near its border with Gaza. Egyptian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Israeli army has been searching the Nasser Hospital complex, arresting suspected Hamas terrorists and searching for evidence that the remains of Israeli hostages abducted by Hamas might be there. Israel says it does not target patients or doctors, but staff say the facility is struggling under heavy fire and dwindling supplies. Gallant said 70 suspected terrorists have been arrested at the hospital.

Negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza, meanwhile, appear to have stalled, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday pushed back hard against the United States’ vision for after the war — particularly its calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.

After speaking overnight with Biden and reportedly meeting with visiting CIA chief William Burns, Netanyahu wrote on X that Israel will not accept “international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.”

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