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Tags: israel | hamas | gaza | rafah

Israel Vows to Press Ahead With 'Powerful' Rafah Operation

Wednesday, 14 February 2024 03:58 PM EST

Israel vowed Wednesday to press on with a "powerful" operation in war-torn Gaza's Rafah, even as calls mounted for it to hold off sending troops into the territory's overcrowded far-southern city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week ordered the Israeli army to prepare for an incursion into Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians are trapped.

Netanyahu has come under growing pressure to refrain from launching a large-scale ground assault on Rafah, but has insisted Hamas' battalions must be eliminated in the city.

"We will fight until complete victory, and this includes a powerful action also in Rafah after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones," he said in a statement.

His pledge came with negotiations to pause the Israel-Hamas war in a second day and as deadly cross-border fire between Israel and Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement stoked fears of wider conflict.

Netanyahu vowed to crush Hamas in response to the Islamist group's Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

At least 28,576 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel's retaliatory military offensive on Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory.

Dozens of the estimated 250 hostages seized by Gaza militants during the Oct. 7 attack were freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a weeklong truce in November.

Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo are hoping to secure a cease-fire that would see more of the roughly 130 hostages still in Gaza released in another swap.

A Hamas source told AFP that a delegation was headed to Cairo to meet Egyptian and Qatari mediators, a day after Israeli negotiators held talks with the mediators.

Cross-Border Fire

CIA Director William Burns had joined Tuesday's talks with David Barnea, head of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, which Egyptian media said had been mostly "positive."

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called the negotiations "constructive and moving in the right direction."

Netanyahu said Israel would push for the release of hostages through "strong military pressure and very firm negotiations."

"And, yes, I insist that Hamas drop their delusional demands. And when they drop these demands, we can move forward," he said.

With regional tensions high, the Israeli army said rocket fire from Lebanon killed an Israeli soldier; while Lebanese state media said Israeli strikes killed three civilians — a woman and two children — and a Hezbollah fighter in south Lebanon.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, Hezbollah has traded near-daily fire with Israeli troops, with tens of thousands displaced on both sides.

More than 240 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly from Hezbollah but also including over 30 civilians. In Israel, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, the army says.

The U.N. secretary-general's spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, warned "the recent escalation is dangerous indeed and should stop."

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called for a "diplomatic path forward" to try to resolve Israel-Lebanon border tensions.

'Hanging in the Balance'

The potential for mass civilian casualties in Rafah triggered urgent appeals — including from close allies — for Israel to hold off sending troops into the last major population center it has yet to enter in the conflict.

Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped, is also the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies.

Terrified civilians are desperately seeking safety.

"My three children were injured; where can I go?" Dana Abu Chaaban asked at the border crossing with Egypt, where she was hoping to cross with her bandaged-up sons.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought shelter in makeshift camps by the Egyptian border, where they face outbreaks of disease and a scarcity of food and water.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that "a new phase of the conflict is unfolding" and called for the protection of civilian lives.

"In view of a military operation in densely populated Rafah, we renew our call on the parties to the conflict, and all who have influence on them, to spare and protect civilian lives and infrastructure," said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC's regional director for the Near and Middle East.

"It is urgent to do more now. Countless lives are hanging in the balance."

Israel's military has kept up its bombardment of Gaza, with strikes on both Rafah and the southern city of Khan Yunis.

'Crimes Against Humanity'

Fears were also growing over southern Gaza's Nasser hospital, where a nurse said snipers were killing people, sewage had flooded the emergency room, and drinking water had run out.

Mohammed al-Astal, 39, said the facility had been "besieged" for a month.

"At night, tanks opened heavy fire on the hospital; and snipers on the roofs of buildings surrounding Nasser hospital opened fire and killed three displaced people," he said.

The Israeli military said troops have been "thoroughly instructed" to protect civilians and medical facilities.

Some Gazans in Rafah were packing their belongings in readiness to move but others vowed to stay put, fearing even greater misery and starvation in the bombed-out hometowns they fled.

Ahlam Abu Assi said she "would rather die" in Rafah than return to the famine-like conditions facing relatives who stayed in Gaza City.

"My son and his children have nothing to eat. They cook a handful of rice and save it for the next day," she said. "My grandson cries from hunger."

Two Argentinian-Israeli hostages rescued in a raid in Rafah on Monday had now been discharged from hospital, a doctor said.

On Wednesday, around 100 representatives of the remaining hostages flew to The Hague to file a "crimes against humanity" charge against Hamas leaders at the International Criminal Court.

And Spain and Ireland asked the European Union to "urgently" examine whether Israel is complying with its human rights obligations in Gaza under an accord linking rights to trade ties.

© AFP 2024

Israel vowed Wednesday to press on with a "powerful" operation in war-torn Gaza's Rafah, even as calls mounted for it to hold off sending troops into the territory's overcrowded far-southern city.
israel, hamas, gaza, rafah
Wednesday, 14 February 2024 03:58 PM
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