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Israel seizes Rafah crossing as Gaza truce talks resume

By AFP

May 7, 2024 11:41 PM


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Israel sent tanks into Rafah in southern Gaza, seizing control of the border crossing with Egypt Tuesday, an operation the UN said denied it access to the key humanitarian passage.

The thrust into the eastern sector of Rafah, packed with displaced civilians, came with negotiators and mediators due in Cairo in the latest effort towards a hostage release and ceasefire in the seven-month-old war.

A senior Hamas official, requesting anonymity, warned this would be Israel's "last chance" to free the estimated 128 captives still held in the Palestinian territory, including 35 the military says are dead.

A Hamas delegation was headed "shortly" to Egypt, the official said, and mediator Qatar announced it was also dispatching a team.

An Israeli delegation was already in Cairo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, after weekend talks took place with no Israeli representatives present.

In a statement, Netanyahu's office said he had told negotiators to "stand firm" on conditions for hostage release and "essential requirements" for Israel's security.

Israel's close ally the United States said it was hopeful the two sides can "close the remaining gaps".

"We're going to do everything we can to support that process," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

He also said CIA chief Bill Burns would attend the Cairo talks.

"Everybody's coming to the table," Kirby told reporters. "That's not insignificant."

The long-threatened Rafah operation began hours after Hamas announced late Monday it had accepted a truce proposal, prompting cheering crowds to take to the streets despite Israel saying it was "far" from plans it had previously agreed to.

Netanyahu said that "within hours" of approving the Rafah operation, "our forces raised the Israeli flags at the Rafah crossing and took down the Hamas flags".

He called it "a very important step" in denying Hamas "a passage that was essential for establishing its reign of terror".

Rafah resident Abu Aoun al-Najjar said the "indescribable joy" following the Hamas statement was short-lived.

"It turned out to be a bloody night," he told AFP, as more Israeli strikes and bombardment "stole our joy".

  'Dire humanitarian situation' 

Army footage showed tanks taking "operational control" of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, the military said, in a deployment that had a "very limited scope against very specific targets".

UN humanitarian office spokesman Jens Laerke said Israel had denied it access to both Rafah and Kerem Shalom -- the other main Gaza aid crossing, on the border with Israel -- with only "one day of fuel available" inside the besieged territory.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Israel to "stop any escalation" and "immediately" reopen the crossings.

"The closure of both... crossings is especially damaging to an already dire humanitarian situation", Guterres said, warning that "a full-scale assault on Rafah will be a human catastrophe".

Overnight, heavy bombardments rocked Rafah, an AFP correspondent reported, with two hospitals recording a total of 27 killed.

Later, Hamas's armed wing said it fired rockets at Israeli troops at Kerem Shalom, two days after four Israeli soldiers were killed there in an attack it also claimed.

The war was sparked by Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,789 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday Israel may "deepen" its Gaza operation if negotiations fail to get hostages out.

"This operation will continue until we eliminate Hamas in the Rafah area and the entire Gaza Strip, or until the first hostage returns," he said in his statement.

'Tangible opportunity'

Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, and Qatar, a US ally that also hosts Hamas leaders, have taken the lead in the ceasefire negotiations.

Hamas on Monday said it had told Egyptian and Qatari officials of its "approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire".

Netanyahu's office called the proposal "far from Israel's essential demands", but the government would still send negotiators for talks.

Hamas member Khalil al-Hayya told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel that the proposal agreed to by Hamas involved a three-phase truce.

It included a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the return of Palestinians displaced by the war and a hostage-prisoner exchange, with the goal of a "permanent ceasefire", he said.

International alarm has been building about the consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, where the United Nations says 1.4 million people are sheltering.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed concern that an attack on Rafah began despite European and US warnings, and could cause many "civilian casualties".

US spokesman Kirby said Israel told Washington "that this operation last night was limited and designed to cut off Hamas's ability to smuggle weapons" into Gaza.

Egypt urged Israel to "exercise the utmost restraint", while the Organization for Islamic Cooperation condemned Israel's "criminal aggression".

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to send ground troops into Rafah regardless of any truce, saying Israel needs to root out remaining Hamas forces.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum said it had appealed to several countries to "exert your influence on the Israeli government".

In a message to ambassadors of governments with citizens among the hostages, it asked them to push for an agreement "while a tangible opportunity for the release of the hostages is on the table".

Aid groups warn the coastal "humanitarian area" Israel's military told people in eastern Rafah to head for was not ready for such an influx.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had begun discharging patients from a field hospital in Rafah and was preparing "for a possible evacuation".

"This offensive is... going to further aggravate the damage to the health system, which is barely functioning," an MSF statement said.


AFP


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