Israel's deadline on Rafah ground offensive looms as Gaza death toll tops 29,000

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to 'finish the job' in Gaza

The Israeli government has threatened to invade Gaza's southern city of Rafah in the coming weeks as the Hamas-run health ministry reports the death toll has risen to over 29,000.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his peers are yet to publicly discuss a timeline for a ground offensive on Rafah, it is understood that it will ensue if the remaining Israeli hostages are not freed by the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

More than half the enclave’s 2.3 million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah, after being displaced from their homes.

Retired general Benny Gantz, part of Netanyahu’s three-member War Cabinet, represents an influential voice but not the final word on what might lie ahead.

“If by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue to the Rafah area,” Gantz told a conference of Jewish American leaders.

It comes as the Hamas-run health ministry said 107 bodies were brought to hospitals in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of fatalities to 29,092 since the start of the war.

Ramadan, expected to begin March 10, is historically a tense time in the region. Muslims will fast from sunrise until sunset. A quarter of Gaza's population already face starvation.

Netanyahu wants Israel to achieve “total victory” over Hamas. In response to international concern over a Rafah offensive, he has said Palestinian civilians will be evacuated.

Where they will go in largely devastated Gaza is not clear.

The suggested timing for the offensive came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief said southern Gaza's main medical center, 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.

Nasser Hospital, in the southern city of Khan Younis, has been the latest focus of operations that have gutted Gaza’s health sector. Credit: AP

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.

As cease-fire negotiations struggle after signs of progress in recent weeks, Netanyahu has called demands by Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group “delusional.”

The United States, Israel's top ally, says it still hopes to broker a cease-fire and hostage-release agreement, and envisions a wider resolution of the war sparked by Hamas' deadly October 7 attack in southern Israel.

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

But Netanyahu opposes Palestinian statehood, which the US has called a key element in a broader vision for normalisation of relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

More than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million have been crammed into the southern city of Rafah. Credit: AP

His Cabinet adopted a declaration on Sunday saying Israel “categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians” and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

The international community overwhelmingly supports an independent Palestinian state as part of a future peace agreement.

Netanyahu's government is filled with hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence.

The October 7 attack killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostage.

Militants still hold around 130 hostages, a fourth of them believed to be dead. Most of the others were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

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