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Israel’s ultimatum to release hostages before Ramadan to avert Rafah attack

Israel’s ultimatum to release hostages before Ramadan to avert Rafah attack

With its belligerent attitude to go ahead with its declared plan to attack Rafah in Gaza, where the ongoing bombardment on their land has cornered Palestinians, Israel itself proclaimed that it will not accede to the global call to halt its planned ground offensive in Rafah.

A recent statement from a member of Israel's war cabinet has issued a warning that the country will launch a ground offensive against Rafah, the last place of relative safety in Gaza if Hamas does not release its remaining Israeli hostages by the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in just under three weeks.

Benny Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, delivered the ultimatum during a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday. He emphasized that if by Ramadan the hostages are not released, the fighting will intensify, including in the Rafah area.

With Israeli forces steadily advancing southwards over the past four months, Rafah has become the last refuge for more than half of Gaza's population, now at 2.3 million.

The situation in Gaza is dire, with widespread destruction and ongoing fighting making it unclear how civilians are expected to flee in the event of a ground offensive. Israeli forces claimed victory in the central town of Khan Younis, and nearby refugee camps, further raising concerns about a potential assault on Rafah.

The death toll has now surpassed 29,000, with airstrikes and ground fighting in the past day alone killing over 100 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry. About 85% of the population has been displaced, and one in four is facing starvation, as reported by the UN.

Gantz's threat of an uninterrupted operation in Gaza comes amid stalled negotiations for a ceasefire and exchanges of prisoners and hostages. A potential major offensive in Rafah during Ramadan raises concerns of a humanitarian catastrophe and could trigger further violence across the region, with Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon already being drawn into the conflict.

Adding to the tension, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted recommendations to limit access to the holy site of Al Aqsa during Ramadan, a move met with anger from Arab religious and political leaders.

The restrictions extend not only to Palestinians but also to Israel's Muslim minority, constituting about 18% of the population. Critics, including Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Knesset's left-wing Arab Taal party, have accused Netanyahu of making decisions influenced by far-right coalition partners and called for international sanctions.

As the fasting period approaches, clashes in Jerusalem over access to Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, could exacerbate tensions further. Netanyahu's office contends that the restrictions are a balanced decision, allowing religious freedom within the limits of security needs as established by the security establishment heads.

The prime minister, facing corruption trials and potential vulnerability if ousted, is accused of slow-walking ceasefire talks. While a delegation was sent to Cairo last week at Joe Biden's request, Netanyahu sees no gain in sending them again, further prolonging the resolution process.

The proposed restrictions on access to Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan have already been denounced by Hamas, labelling them as a continuation of Zionist criminality and religious warfare. The group called on Palestinians to resist the occupation's arrogance and mobilize to stand firm in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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