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Children look at the aftermath of an Israeli bombardment in Rafah Alamy

EU leaders call for 'humanitarian pause' as Israel sets mid-March deadline for assault on Rafah

Three-quarters of the displaced Palestinian population has fled to Rafah.


ISRAEL HAS THREATENED to invade Gaza’s Rafah by the start of Ramadan if Hamas does not return the remaining hostages by then, despite international pressure to protect Palestinian civilians sheltering in the southern city.

In Brussels this evening, all EU member states except for Hungary agreed on a statement that called for ”an immediate humanitarian pause that would lead to a sustainable ceasefire”, according to the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

The joint statement also included a call for Israel not to invade Rafah. 

EU leaders have been deeply divided over the language used in statements regarding Israel’s conduct in Gaza and other issues related to Palestine and Israel, like recognising Palestinian statehood.

Germany in particular has been reluctant to include the word “immediate” while Hungary is a staunch supporter of Israel and has frequently refused to go along with EU statements seen as critical of the country.

Elsewhere at the diplomatic level, Brazil summoned the Israeli ambassador today as a tit-for-tat row continued between the two states that began yesterday when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva compared Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust.

The Brazilian foreign ministry said in a statement that Brazil had also recalled its own ambassador from Tel Aviv for “consultations,” after Israel summoned the Brazilian envoy and declared Lula “persona non grata” over his remarks, demanding an apology.

palestinian-emergency-hose-flames-after-an-israeli-strike-on-a-residential-building-in-rafah-monday-feb-19-2024-ap-photohatem-ali Palestinian emergency service workers try to put out a fire after an Israeli airstrike hit a residential building. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Meanwhile, Palestine’s foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki has told the UN’s top court that his people are suffering “colonialism and apartheid”.

The ICJ is holding hearings all week on the legal implications of Israel’s occupation since 1967, with an unprecedented 52 countries expected to give evidence.

This comes as Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz warned yesterday that the Israeli army is ready to push deeper into Rafah during Ramadan which, based on the lunar calendar, starts around 10 March.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know: if by Ramadan the hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area,” said Gantz, a former military chief of staff.

“We will do so in a coordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with American and Egyptian partners and to minimise the civilian casualties as much as possible.”

He added: “Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages, and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan.”

Unicef has said that Rafah now shelters half of Gaza’s population, “many of whom have been displaced multiple times by war”. 

“They must be protected. They have nowhere safe to go,” it said. 

Israel has so far failed to specify where Palestinians could flee after more than four months of devastating conflict have flattened vast swathes of the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has stressed it does not want Gazans to flee into its Sinai territory. It has argued that this would facilitate an effort to empty Gaza of its Palestinian population, an objective Israel denies.

Satellite images show that Egypt has started erecting a walled enclosure parallel to the Gaza border, in an apparent precautionary move in case of a mass refugee flight.

rafah-palestinian-territories-18th-feb-2024-people-look-at-the-aftermath-of-the-israeli-bombardment-on-lands-housing-displaced-palestinians-credit-mohammed-talatenedpaalamy-live-news People look at the aftermath of the Israeli bombardment on lands housing displaced Palestinians Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

International pressure has grown on Israel to halt its assault on Gaza. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to insist his army will destroy Hamas and bring home the remaining captives.

Speaking yesterday, the right-wing premier again vowed “total victory” over Hamas.

The conflict started when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack of 7 October that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

The militants of Hamas, considered a “terrorist” group by the United States, EU and other governments, also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel’s massive retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the territory’s health ministry.

Israeli strikes in Lebanon

Two Israeli air strikes have hit southern Lebanon near the city of Sidon, wounding 14 people, official media said, while the Israeli army claimed it had targeted “Hezbollah weapons storage facilities”.

An AFP photographer reported the sound of at least two successive strikes in Ghaziyeh, one targeting a hangar close to the main coastal highway, with dark smoke billowing across the area.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency (NNA) said the strikes targeted a warehouse where tyres and electricity generators were manufactured, and the vicinity of a factory, leaving “14 wounded, most of them Syrian and Palestinian workers”.

It said two emergency responders were injured while putting out the warehouse blaze.

One of the strikes targeted a factory “in an industrial area of Ghaziyeh, wounding at least eight workers”, seven of them Syrians, a Lebanese security source, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, said earlier.

The Israeli army said in a statement that “fighter jets struck two Hezbollah weapons storage facilities adjacent to the city of Sidon”.

“The strike was carried out in response to the launch of a UAV (drone) toward the Lower Galilee in northern Israel,” the statement said, adding that the drone was likely launched by Hezbollah earlier in the day.

Besieged hospital

In Gaza’s city of Khan Yunis, heavy fighting has raged in and around Nasser Hospital, which has been besieged for more than a week. The World Health Organization has said the hospital is no longer operational.

Israel’s army said on Saturday it had detained about 100 suspects at the hospital and that it had found medicines there that had been sent for hostages but were never delivered to them.

a-palestinian-woman-cries-as-she-sits-next-to-her-girl-wounded-in-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-while-receiving-treatment-at-the-nasser-hospital-in-khan-younis-southern-gaza-strip-monday A Palestinian woman cries as she sits next to her girl wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip while receiving treatment at the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Gaza health ministry said seven patients, including a child, had died there since Friday due to power cuts, and “70 staff including intensive care doctors” had been arrested.

In a statement this afternoon, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that after two days of being denied entry to the hospital, its staff were allowed inside to access patients. 

“As a result, livesaving medical referral of 14 critical patients were facilitated. Two patients needed continuous manual ventilation throughout their journey,” he said, adding there are still more than 180 patients and 15 doctors and nurses inside the hospital. 

“The hospital is experiencing an acute shortage of food, basic medical supplies and oxygen. There is no tap water and no electricity, expect a backup generator maintaining some livesaving machines,” he said. 

Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said diesel and oxygen supplies had been delivered to the hospital and a temporary generator was running.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that in Khan Yunis’s Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals, “troops have operated with great precision to apprehend terrorists, with no resulting civilian casualties”.

Rape and murder allegations

In Geneva today, a group of UN human rights experts expressed their “alarm” at “credible” reports of Israeli soldiers executing, raping, beating and humiliating Palestinian women and girls since 7 October. 

Women and children in Israeli custody have reportedly been denied access to food, water and menstruation pads, and in one case a woman was allegedly kept in a cage outdoors.

The experts also noted that photos of female detainees in degrading circumstances were reportedly taken by the Israeli army and uploaded online.

Also highlighted in the report was the apparent disappearance of children who have been captured by Israeli forces.

The report said that the alleged acts may constitute “grave violations” of human rights and amount to “serious crimes” under international criminal law. 

Includes reporting by - © AFP 2024