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A view of destroyed cars following Israeli airstrikes on the city of Rafah last week Alamy Stock Photo

US urges Israel not to carry out Rafah attack in Gaza without plan to keep civilians safe

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven into Rafah, seeking shelter in a sprawling makeshift encampment near the Egyptian border.

ISRAEL IS FACING renewed calls from key ally the United States against launching a large-scale attack on Gaza’s southern city of Rafah.

Around 1.5 million Palestinians are trapped in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted he would push ahead with a “powerful” operation in the overcrowded city to achieve “complete victory” over the Hamas militant group.

The White House said US President Joe Biden had spoken by phone with Netanyahu late yesterday, urging him not to carry out an attack on Rafah without a plan to keep civilians safe.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven into Rafah, seeking shelter in a sprawling makeshift encampment near the Egyptian border.

The city now hosts more than half of Gaza’s population, with displaced people “crammed” into less than 20 percent of the territory, according to UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

“We were displaced from Gaza City to the south,” said Ahlam Abu Assi. “(Then) they told us to go to Rafah, so we went to Rafah.

“We can’t keep going and coming,” she added. “There is no safe place for us.”

Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have also urged Israel not to launch a ground offensive in the city.

In a letter sent to the European Commission earlier this week by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez, the pair said an expanded Israeli military operation in Rafah “poses a grave and imminent threat that the international community must urgently confront”.

And during a visit to Dublin, UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said the situation in Rafah is “deeply concerning” and that citizens have paid a “staggering and disproportionate price”.

He also questioned the ability of UNRWA to operate in Rafah if a ground offensive begins and said there is “no safe place” in the Gaza Strip.

israel-gaza-border-12th-feb-2024-israeli-tanks-are-seen-near-the-border-with-gaza-strip-in-southern-israel-on-feb-12-2024-israels-special-forces-raided-gazas-rafah-early-monday-to-release-tw Israeli tanks seen near the border with Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, this week Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Israeli strikes killed 112 people early today across the Palestinian territory, the Hamas-run health ministry said.

Israel’s army meanwhile reported the death of another soldier in Gaza early today, raising the number of soldiers killed in the ground operation to 233.

Hospital raid

Roughly 130 hostages are still believed to be in Gaza after the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas militants, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians.

Dozens of the estimated 250 hostages seized during the attack were freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long truce in November.

Israel says 30 of those still in Gaza are presumed dead.

At least 28,663 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s assault on the Palestinian territory, according to the health ministry.

Israel sent troops into one of the largest medical sites in southern Gaza yesterday, saying its forces were hunting for hostages and carrying out a “precise and limited operation” at the facility.

Intense fighting has been reported in recent days between Israeli forces and Hamas militants around Nasser Hospital – one of the territory’s few operational medical facilities.

rafah-palestinian-territories-12th-feb-2024-palestinians-inspect-damaged-buildings-after-israeli-airstrikes-on-rafah-southern-gaza-strip-credit-abed-rahim-khatibdpaalamy-live-news Palestinians inspect damaged buildings after Israeli airstrikes on Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Monday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Israel, which has accused Hamas militants of using hospitals for military purposes, said it was carrying out a “precise and limited operation” at the facility with “no obligation” for patients or staff to evacuate.

Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said there was “credible intelligence from a number of sources, including released hostages, indicating that Hamas held hostages at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis and that there may be bodies of our hostages” there.

The health ministry in Gaza reported that thousands of people who had sought refuge in the complex, including patients, have been made to leave in recent days.

It has called the situation at Nasser “catastrophic”, with staff unable to move bodies to the morgue because of the risks involved.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) described a “chaotic situation” in the hospital after it was shelled early Thursday, killing and wounding multiple people.

“Our medical staff have had to flee the hospital, leaving patients behind,” MSF said, with one employee unaccounted for and another detained by Israeli forces.

The World Health Organization has described Nasser Hospital as a critical facility “for all of Gaza”, where only a minority of hospitals are even partly operational.

The UN Human Rights Office said Israel’s raid on the hospital appeared to be “part of a pattern of attacks by Israeli forces striking essential life-saving civilian infrastructure in Gaza, especially hospitals”.

Truce talks

Mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt gathered in Cairo to broker a deal to halt the fighting and see the release of the remaining hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

CIA director Bill Burns made an unannounced visit to Israel yesterday for talks with Netanyahu and the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea.

Barnea had already held talks with Burns and Egyptian and Qatari representatives in Cairo on Tuesday, before a Hamas delegation visited Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he believed an agreement was still possible.

“We’re very focused on it and I believe it’s possible,” he said on a visit to Albania.

israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-speaking-to-the-press-during-a-joint-press-conference-with-u-s-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-in-israel-on-april-12-2021 File image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Netanyahu’s office said it had not received “any new proposal” from Hamas about releasing hostages, and Israeli media reported the country’s delegation would not return to negotiations until Hamas had softened its stance.

While he did not comment directly on those reports, Netanyahu said: “I insist that Hamas drop their delusional demands and, when they drop these demands, we can move forward.”

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who heads the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has urged Hamas to “rapidly” agree to a truce and stave off further tragedy.

In a post on X late last night, Netanyahu said Israel will not accept “international dictates” regarding a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said such a resolution can only be the result of negotiations.

He said Israel opposes a unilateral recognition of statehood, claiming it would amount to a “huge reward” for Hamas.

He wrote that “Israel rejects outright international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.”

-With additional reporting from Diarmuid Pepper