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JERUSALEM: Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday Israel was prepared to “deepen” its Gaza operation if truce talks fail to secure the release of hostages Hamas holds in the Palestinian territory.

Israel is prepared to “make compromises” to get hostages out of Gaza, Gallant said after touring the Rafah area following an Israeli incursion at the Rafah border crossing in the territory’s south.

But “if that option is removed, we will go on and deepen the operation”, he warned in a statement.

Gallant’s comments came after Israeli negotiators arrived in Cairo for the latest effort towards a hostage release and ceasefire in the seven-month-old war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement he had instructed Israel’s delegation to “stand firm on the conditions necessary for the release” of hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 attack, and on “essential requirements for guaranteeing Israel’s security”.

Hamas says Israeli push into Rafah would threaten hostage talks

The new talks come after Hamas announced late Monday it had accepted a ceasefire plan proposed by Egyptian and Qatari mediators, and said the ball was now in Israel’s court.

Despite months of shuttle diplomacy, mediators have so far failed to broker a new truce like the week-long ceasefire that saw 105 hostages released last November, the Israelis among them in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Previous negotiation efforts had stalled in part because of Hamas’s demand for a lasting ceasefire and Netanyahu’s vows to crush its remaining fighters in Rafah.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had given the order late Monday to seize Rafah crossing, and that “within hours, our forces raised the Israeli flags at the Rafah crossing and took down the Hamas flags”.

“Seizing the passage in Rafah today is a very important step,” he said – “an important step on the way to destroying the remaining military capabilities of Hamas”.

Netanyahu maintained Tuesday that “this morning we denied Hamas a passage that was essential for establishing its reign of terror in the (Gaza) Strip”.

Gallant indicated that the limited Rafah incursion, launched after Israel ordered Palestinians in the east of the city to evacuate ahead of a long-threatened ground operation, could be lengthy.

“This operation will continue until we eliminate Hamas in the Rafah area and the entire Gaza Strip, or until the first hostage returns,” he said in his statement.

If hostages are not returned, Gallant said Israel would expand its operations “all over the Strip, in the south, in the centre and in the north”.

“Hamas only responds to force, so we will intensify our actions, and the military pressure will result in us crushing … Hamas.”

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