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Hamas warns Israel Rafah op may cause casualties in ‘tens of thousands’


Mourners react next to dead bodies, including bodies of 13 Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 10, 2024.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Gaza’s Hamas rulers warned on Saturday that Israel’s planned Army operation in overcrowded Rafah could cause “tens of thousands” of casualties in the city that has become the last refuge for displaced Palestinians.

Even before such an operation, Israel pounded Rafah with strikes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the military to set its sights on the southern city.

Mr. Netanyahu on Friday told officials to “submit to the Cabinet a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions” of Hamas in Rafah, only hours after U.S. President Joe Biden issued his strongest criticism of Israel’s response to the October 7 attack.

The plan drew condemnation from the office of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

“The Israeli occupation’s move threatens security and peace in the region and the world. This is a blatant violation of all red lines,” it said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” if the plan went ahead. Riyadh’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected “forced deportation,” and called for the United Nations Security Council to intervene.

The war in Gaza was sparked by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive in Gaza that the territory’s health ministry says has killed at least 27,947 people, mostly women and children.

Militants seized 250 hostages, 132 of whom are still in Gaza although 29 are presumed dead, Israel has said.

Biden frustration

The United States is Israel’s main international backer, providing it with billions of dollars in military aid.

The US State Department has said it does not support a ground offensive in Rafah, warning that, if not properly planned, such an operation risks “disaster”.

In a sign of growing frustration, Biden issued his strongest criticism of Israel yet on Thursday, describing the retaliation for Hamas’s October 7 attack as “over the top”.

Biden said there are “a lot of innocent people who are starving… in trouble and dying, and it’s got to stop.”

But Netanyahu’s office said it would be “impossible” to achieve the war’s objective of eliminating Hamas while leaving four of the militants’ battalions in Rafah.

The Israeli leader, whose coalition government includes far-right ministers, faces calls for early elections and mounting protests over his failure to bring home hostages seized in the attack.

‘Where to go’

Fears are mounting over the fate of more than one million displaced Palestinians who have taken shelter in Rafah, many of them in plastic tents pushed up against the border with Egypt and the sea.

“If they move into Rafah, as Netanyahu said, there will be genocide. There will be no humanity left,” one of them, Adel al-Hajj, a man from Gaza City in the territory’s north, told AFP.

Witnesses reported new strikes on Rafah on Saturday morning.

“We don’t know where to go,” said Mohammad al-Jarrah, a Palestinian who was displaced to Rafah from his home further north. “This situation scares me.”

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said Israeli bombardment killed at least 110 people overnight, including 25 in Rafah.

At the city’s Al-Najjar hospital, AFPTV images showed a family gathering around the shrouded bodies of relatives.

The city is the last major population centre in the Gaza Strip that Israeli troops have yet to enter and also the main point of access for desperately needed relief supplies.

Humanitarian organisations have sounded alarm at the prospect of a ground incursion.

The UN children’s fund, UNICEF, warned this week against a military escalation in Rafah, saying “thousands more could die in the violence or lack of essential services” it said.

“An escalation of the fighting in Rafah, which is already straining under the extraordinary number of people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza, will mark another devastating turn” in the four-month conflict, UNICEF added.

– Diplomatic efforts –

Netanyahu announced the plan for a ground operation in Rafah only days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel seeking a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange.

Hamas negotiators departed Cairo on Friday after what a Hamas source described as “positive and good discussions” with Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

The delegation “is awaiting Israel’s response,” a Hamas official told AFP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak on the issue.

Citing US and Egyptian officials, the US news outlet Axios said late Friday that Biden is sending CIA director William Burns to Cairo next week to push for a deal to secure the release of more hostages.

The impact of the war has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas surging across the Middle East and drawing in US forces, among others.

Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said Friday it had fired dozens of rockets at an army position in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, hours after launching a salvo at northern Israel.

In the early hours of Saturday, Israeli air strikes on an upscale area near the Syrian capital killed three people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. It said the targeted neighbourhood hosted “villas for top military and officials.”

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