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Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Fatima Shbair/AP

US warns Israel of 'disaster' if it sends troops into Gaza's Rafah city

Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major urban area ground troops have yet to enter.


THE UNITED STATES has warned that Israel risks “disaster” if it sends troops into Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have sought refuge.

The warning came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major urban area in the Gaza Strip Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.

Israel’s armed forces stepped up its air strikes on the city on Thursday as fears of ground fighting grew among the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced from other parts of Gaza who are now sheltering in tents and bombed out buildings.

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington had “yet to see any evidence of serious planning” for a Rafah ground operation.

Noting that Rafah is also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid destined for Gaza, Patel said such an assault was “not something we’d support”.

“To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought… would be a disaster.”

Crisis tour

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed Washington’s concerns to Netanyahu directly during their talks yesterday in Jerusalem, Patel said.

Publicly, the US top diplomat warned that any “military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost.”

Blinken left Israel without securing a pause in fighting, wrapping up his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war started.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that a military push into Rafah “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare”.

AFP journalists reported that Israel carried out at least seven air strikes overnight in the Rafah area, terrifying civilians crowded into shelters and makeshift camps.

“These strikes are proof there is no safety in Rafah,” said resident Umm Hassan, 48, whose home was damaged in the shelling of the nearby house of a local police chief.

“Look at the residential unit they just blew up,” he said. “Regarding Netanyahu’s threat to invade Rafah, we are people of faith. We are not worried. Life is one and God is one.”

Strikes and ground combat continued across the Hamas-ruled territory, now in its fifth month of war, where the health ministry said another 130 people were killed in 24 hours.

Cairo truce talks

Blinken ended his fifth tour of the region, where US forces have been drawn into related conflicts from Iraq to Yemen.

On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw “space for agreement to be reached” to halt the fighting and bring home hostages.

Egypt was set to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators hoping to achieve “calm” in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

The Israeli prime minister had rejected what he labelled Hamas’s “bizarre demands” in the talks.

Blinken told reporters that Hamas’s counter-proposal had at least offered an opportunity “to pursue negotiations”.

“While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” he said.

Hamas said a delegation led by Khalil al-Hayya, a leading member of the group’s political bureau, was travelling to Cairo.

A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP: “We expect the negotiations to be very complex and difficult.

“But Hamas is open to discussions and the movement is keen to reach a ceasefire,” added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.