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Israeli military says it has weapons it needs for Rafah ground operation

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s military spokesman says the army has the weapons it needs to press ahead with its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari was asked at a news conference whether the army can conduct the operation without U.S. arms.

“The army has armaments for the missions it plans, and for the missions in Rafah too — we have what we need,” Hagari said.

Hagari spoke after U.S. President Joe Biden said he would not supply offensive weapons that Israel could use to launch an all-out assault on Rafah — the last major Hamas stronghold in Gaza — over concerns for the civilians there.

Hagari said relations with the U.S. remain close, and that disagreements should be resolved behind closed doors.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

he first aid ship bound for an American-built floating pier to be installed in Gaza departed early Thursday. But it’s unclear when the corridor will be up and running, and humanitarian groups say there are still major obstacles to getting food to starving Palestinians in the war-ravaged enclave.

Cyprus announced the ship’s departure even though the U.S. military has not yet installed the pier and questions remain as to how the aid will be distributed. Even when the route is up and running, it won’t be able to handle as much aid as Gaza’s two main land crossings, which are currently inaccessible.

The U.N. says most of the territory’s 2.3 million Palestinians suffer from hunger and that northern Gaza is already experiencing “full-blown famine.”

Humanitarian workers fear an even more dire situation if Israel launches a long-promised invasion of the southern city of Rafah, which is the main distribution point for aid and where some 1.3 million Palestinians have sought refuge, most having fled from fighting elsewhere.

Israel seized the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt on Tuesday, and it’s unclear when it will reopen. Israel reopened its side of the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing — Gaza’s main cargo terminal — after a rocket attack over the weekend, but the U.N.’s main provider of humanitarian assistance says aid cannot be brought in on the Palestinian side because of the security situation.

A recently reopened route in the north is still functioning, but only 60 trucks entered on Tuesday, far below the 500 that entered Gaza each day before the war.

International aid groups warned this week that a distribution network is at risk of collapse across the territory because of the closure of Rafah, which was used to import fuel. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said it only has enough stocks to maintain operations for a few days and has started rationing.

The threat of a full-scale invasion of Rafah, where many aid groups have warehouses and staff, is also disrupting distribution.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the United States would not supply offensive weapons for an all-out invasion, in the latest escalation of tensions between the two close allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu brushed off the threat in a statement issued Thursday, saying “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone.”

“If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails. But we have much more than fingernails,” he added.

Earlier, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote a post on the platform X with a heart between the words “Hamas” and “Biden.” He and other ultra-nationalist members of Netanyahu’s coalition support a large-scale Rafah operation and have threatened to bring down his government if it doesn’t happen.

Israel’s limited military incursion into Rafah has meanwhile already complicated what had been months of efforts by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt to broker a cease-fire and the release of hostages captured in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war.

CIA Director William Burns headed back to the United States as planned on Thursday after attending talks in Cairo and meeting with Netanyahu this week, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door international efforts.

Hamas also said its delegation had left Cairo and was returning to Qatar, where it maintains a political office.

Egypt’s state-owned Al-Qahera TV said that the Cairo negotiations were continuing. It did not say whether Israel’s delegation was still there, and there was no comment from the Israeli government.

The war began with Hamas’ surprise attack into southern Israel, in which it killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage. The militants are still holding some 100 captives and the remains of more than 30 after most of the rest were released during a cease-fire last year.

The war has killed over 34,800 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel’s offensive, waged with U.S.-supplied munitions, has caused widespread devastation and forced some 80% of Gaza’s population to flee their homes.

Biden announced the construction of the floating pier two months ago as part of efforts to ramp up humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Maj. Pete Nguyen, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that parts of the pier are still in the Israeli port of Ashdod awaiting more favorable seas before being moved into position off Gaza. He said the U.S. vessel Sagamore, which left Cyprus, would transport aid to another ship, the Roy P. Benavidez, which is off the coast of Gaza.

“In the coming days, the U.S. will commence an international community-backed effort to expand the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza using a floating pier,” he said.

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Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Associated Press writers Ellen Knickmeyer and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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