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Israel’s Netanyahu rebuffs U.S. plea to halt Rafah offensive

TEL AVIV, Israel — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday once again left the Middle East empty-handed as Israel’s prime minister rejected American appeals to call off a promised ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The tough message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets the stage for potentially difficult talks next week in Washington between top U.S. officials and a high-level Israeli delegation.

Netanyahu said Israel is ready to “do it alone” in Rafah if necessary.Despite their differences, the Biden administration has continued to provide crucial military aid and diplomatic support.

Israel says Rafah is the last remaining stronghold of Hamas and says the terrorist group’s forces there must be defeated for Israel to meet its war objectives. Israel vowed to destroy Hamas following the group’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack, which killed some 1,200 people, took 250 others hostage and triggered the fierce Israeli retaliatory air and ground offensive in Gaza.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said Friday that at least 32,070 people have been killed. Israel claims at least a third of the dead are Hamas terrorists, and says the group is responsible for civilian casualties by hiding and operating in residential areas.

Rafah now shelters over 1 million homeless Palestinians who fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza. The U.S., along with most of the international community, fears an Israeli ground invasion will endanger civilians’ lives and impede the flow of humanitarian aid into the territory, most of which comes through Rafah.

Netanyahu said he told Blinken that Israel is working on ways to evacuate civilians from combat zones and to address the humanitarian needs of Gaza.

“I also said that we have no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah,” Netanyahu said. “I told him that I hope we would do this with U.S. support but if necessary — we will do it alone.”

Blinken, wrapping up his sixth visit to the Mideast since the war broke out, told reporters that the U.S. shares Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas.

“But a major ground operation in Rafah is not, in our judgment, the way to achieve it and we were very clear about that,” he said, adding that Israel faces growing isolation if it presses ahead.

The looming Rafah invasion has cast a shadow over ongoing efforts to forge a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas. Blinken, who also met with Arab leaders during his trip this week, acknowledged “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The U.S. will share its ideas for alternatives at next week’s meetings, when a delegation led by Netanyahu’s national security adviser and a member of Israel’s War Cabinet heads to Washington. Israel’s defense minister, another member of the War Cabinet, will also visit.

Blinken said talks would focus on post-war plans, another area of disagreement.

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