Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel dismissed a Hamas counterproposal for a cease-fire, saying on Wednesday that an Israeli victory in Gaza was “within reach.”
“There is no solution besides total victory,” Mr. Netanyahu said during a news conference in Jerusalem, shortly after meeting with the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, to discuss peace proposals. “If Hamas survives in Gaza, it’s only a matter of time until the next massacre.”
His comments appeared to dampen the wary hopes raised on Tuesday, when U.S. and Qatari officials said the Hamas offer reflected potential progress. But Mr. Netanyahu, a canny negotiator, avoided specifics in his news conference, leaving things somewhat murky.
In response to an offer negotiated by Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Hamas submitted a cease-fire proposal that outlined a path to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the release of Hamas’s remaining hostages in exchange for some of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Without specifying any details of the Hamas proposal, Mr. Netanyahu said “surrender to the ludicrous demands of Hamas” would neither free the more than 100 hostages still in Gaza nor restore Israel’s security.
Asked specifically whether Israel had formally rejected the framework, Mr. Netanyahu said: “Based on what they passed to us? From what I’ve seen so far — you, too, would have said no.”
Hamas’s proposed deal would effectively end Israel’s campaign in Gaza without toppling the group’s rule there, analysts said. Mr. Netanyahu rejects any postwar arrangement that leaves Hamas in power, saying that it would allow the group to commit another assault on Israel similar to the Oct. 7 attack that killed roughly 1,200 people.
In a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon, a Hamas leader, Osama Hamdan, insisted that the group’s proposal had been sincere, called on the United States to help halt the war, and said that a delegation from the group’s leadership would travel to Cairo to pursue talks on the offer.
Mr. Hamdan stressed the urgency of the need for the war to stop, saying, “No words or reports can describe the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe and the horror of the true tragedy left by the occupation in the Gaza Strip.”
Mr. Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel’s leadership had directed the military to prepare to deploy in Rafah, at the southern border of Gaza, an area in which over 1.4 million Palestinians are believed to have crowded, seeking shelter, according to the United Nations. The military was also planning to operate in camps in the central Gaza Strip, he added, calling the areas “Hamas’s last remaining strongholds.”
António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, pronounced himself “especially alarmed” on Wednesday by reports the Israeli military intended to focus next on Rafah, where displaced Palestinians “have been squeezed in a desperate search for safety.”
“Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” said Mr. Guterres, renewing his call for an immediate cease-fire and the release of hostages held in Gaza.
The Israeli authorities have said 253 Israelis and foreign nationals were taken hostage on Oct. 7. More than 100 have been released, mostly during a weeklong cease-fire deal that began last November. Israeli officials say 136 remain in Gaza, including dozens who are believed to be dead.
Fearing for the remaining hostages after four months of warfare, their families have stepped up their calls for the government to immediately reach a hostage deal with Hamas. Some have begun sleeping in a protest tent near the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence.
“I address you, Mr. Netanyahu, everything is in your hands. You are the one who can,” said Adina Moshe, 72, an Israeli hostage who was freed from Hamas captivity during the weeklong cease-fire. “I’m terribly afraid if you continue with this line of dismantling Hamas, no hostages will be left to release.”
Mr. Netanyahu said he had told Mr. Blinken that after Israel toppled Hamas, Israel would “ensure that Gaza will be demilitarized forever.” Israel would continue to operate in Gaza “everywhere and anytime” in order to protect its security, so as “to ensure that terrorism will not raise its head again,” he added.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.