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Israel sets date for Rafah ground offensive in ultimatum to Hamas

Israel will launch a ground offensive in the southern city of Rafah if hostages are not released by the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned on Sunday.

The statement comes as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed off growing international calls to halt Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

"If by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue to the Rafah area," Mr Gantz, a former prime minister and part of Mr Netanyahu’s three-member war cabinet, told a conference of Jewish American leaders.

“We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimise civilian casualties,” the former IDF chief of staff and defence minister was quoted as saying by The Times of Israel.

“To those saying the price [of an offensive] is too high, I say this very clearly: Hamas has a choice – they can surrender, release the hostages, and the citizens of Gaza will be able to celebrate the holy holiday of Ramadan,” he said.

The holy month of Ramadan begins on 10 March. Israel‘s government has not publicly discussed a timeline for a ground offensive on Rafah, where more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million Palestinians have sought refuge, but is facing mounting pressure to agree a ceasefire in the conflict that began with Hamas’s 7 October attack on southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people.

The suggested timing for the Rafah offensive came as the World Health Organisation chief said southern Gaza’s main medical centre, Nasser Hospital, "is not functional anymore" after Israeli forces raided it in Khan Younis last week.

Israeli strikes across Gaza continued, killing at least 18 people overnight into Sunday, according to medics and witnesses. A strike in Rafah killed six people, including a woman and three children, and another killed five in Khan Younis, the main target of the southern Gaza offensive in recent weeks.

"All those who were martyred were those whom the Jews asked to move to safe places," a bystander after the Rafah strike, Ahmad Abu Rezeq, told the Associated Press.

In Gaza City, which suffered widespread destruction early in the war, an airstrike flattened a home, killing seven people, including three women, according to relative Sayed al-Afifi.

The US, Israel‘s top ally, still hopes to broker a ceasefire and hostage-release agreement despite talks slowing in recent days.

The US also says it will veto another draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, with its UN ambassador warning against measures that could jeopardise "the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities”.

The vote, tabled by Algeria and backed by 22 Arab nations, demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and is expected to take place on Tuesday.

US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement that Washington has been working on a hostage deal for months that would bring at least a six-week period of calm to the region, "from which we could then take the time and the steps to build a more enduring peace".

She said US president Joe Biden has had multiple calls over the last week with the Israeli prime minister and the leaders of Egypt and Qatar to push the deal forward.

But Mr Netanyahu opposes Palestinian statehood, which the US calls a key element in a broader vision for normalisation of relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia. His cabinet adopted a declaration Sunday saying Israel "categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians" and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

Additional reporting by agencies