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US threatens to stop arm shipments if Israel invades Rafah

WHO warns Gaza hospitals have only three days' fuel left: Hamas naval commander killed


May 9, 2024 08:56 AM

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President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would stop US weapons supplies to Israel if it attacks Rafah in southern Gaza, his most direct warning to date over the prosecution of the war against Hamas.

In an interview with CNN Biden also deplored the fact that civilians had been killed by the dropping of US bombs on the Palestinian territory.

His fresh warning came after the US last week halted a shipment of huge American bombs to Israel as it appeared ready to proceed with a major attack on Rafah -- a city packed with Palestinian civilians sheltering near the Egyptian border.

"If they go into Rafah, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used… to deal with the cities," Biden said. "We're not gonna supply the weapons and the artillery shells that have been used."

Biden, a self-described Zionist, had long resisted stopping any of the $3 billion in weapons the United States sends each year to Israel -- and pushed Congress for an increase in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas that triggered the major Israeli retaliation.

But US officials say privately that his hand was forced after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear he would go ahead with an assault on Rafah, defying Biden's public appeals to spare the city.

Under increasing pressure from the left of his own party to limit arms shipments, the Biden administration paused delivery last week of 1,800 2,000-pound (907 kilogram) bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs.

"Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs," Biden said. "It's just wrong."

Biden may worry about alienating centrist voters if he shifts too far, while Netanyahu knows he needs US support at a time of wide global anger against Israel.

"We're not walking away from Israel's security," Biden insisted in the CNN interview. "We're walking away from Israel's ability to wage war in those areas."

- Incremental pressure -

The Biden administration has previously taken smaller steps to show displeasure with Netanyahu, including imposing sanctions on extremist Israeli settlers and letting through a UN Security Council resolution that supported a ceasefire.

Major US interventions in the past have changed Israeli behavior. In 1991, Israel begrudgingly attended the Madrid conference that led to a peace process with the Palestinians after then-president George W. Bush held up US loan guarantees to build settlements.

In 1956, heavy US pressure including economic threats forced Israel as well as Britain and France to give up their grab of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

But experts questioned if Israel could be persuaded this time as it sees its war in existential terms after October 7, the deadliest attack ever on the country.

"I cannot imagine American displeasure with the prospect of a Rafah invasion doesn't loom large in the Israeli government's calculus," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"At the same time, Israelis have other calculations, too," he said.

- Will Israel listen? -

Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program at the RAND Corporation research group, noted that Israel dialed back air strikes and opened border crossings after Biden voiced anger last month following an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers.

"Despite Netanyahu's rhetoric, Israel takes American pressure quite seriously," he said.

But avoiding a Rafah invasion "functionally means leaving at least four battalions of Hamas fighters plus its senior leadership intact and over 100 hostages in Hamas hands," he said.

"From an Israeli strategic perspective, that's probably a nonstarter and it also may fracture Netanyahu's coalition."

Even with the pause of US shipments, Israel is believed to have a significant weapons stockpile. It has a major domestic defense industry and the Biden administration has repeatedly shipped weapons that fall beneath the threshold for congressional notification.

Ari Tolany, who follows the arms trade for the progressive Center for International Policy, doubted the halt would have "an immediate operational impact" but said it sent a message to Israel not to drop 2,000-pound bombs, as it already has in the war.

Empty streets and 'fear' in Rafah

Displaced Gazan Marwan al-Masri, sheltering in Rafah, said on Wednesday "life has completely ceased" since Israeli tanks and troops entered the city's east, sending desperate Palestinians fleeing north in the besieged territory.

More than 1.4 million people had crammed into Rafah, a city on the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt, as Israeli forces pushed their way southward from the coastal territory's north during months of war against Hamas militants.

Many in Rafah have been displaced multiple times during the seven-month war, and are now heading back north after Israeli forces called for the evacuation of the city's eastern past, which hosts tens of thousands of people.

"Life has completely ceased in the downtown area of Rafah", said 35-year-old Masri, who has been displaced from northern Gaza.

"The streets are empty of people, and markets are in a state of paralysis", he told AFP.

"We all feel fear of any advancement in the invasion, as happened in the eastern areas, which are now completely empty of residents".

Masri said he and his relatives "are all tense and frightened" by the incessant shelling that they feel is getting closer to them.

Ibtihal al-Arouqi, who was displaced from Al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, said she has found herself once again homeless.

"We emerged from under the rubble of our house in Al-Bureij, and now due to intense shelling in Rafah, my children and I are in the street", she said.

The 39-year-old said that only two weeks ago she gave birth by Caesarean section.

"We don't know where to go. There is no safe place", Arouqi added.

She spoke from west Rafah, where many Palestinians remain.

While it is relatively calmer than the city's heavily bombarded east, the west has also been hit by shelling, an AFP journalist reported.

Both Arouqi and Masri said incessant shelling has filled the air with dust and smoke that make it hard to breathe.

"The situation in Rafah is chaotic," said Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity in Rafah.

Himself displaced from Gaza City, he described "people carrying their things, mattresses, blankets, kitchen items on trucks" to flee east Rafah.

But "there's no space anymore in the west of Rafah," Abu Mughaiseeb told AFP.

The city's Al-Najjar hospital was "closed, evacuated by the medical team to avoid what happened in Al-Shifa or Nasser", he added, referring to two other Gaza medical facilities raided by Israeli forces during the course of the war.

- 'No room' -

Caught between Israeli shelling from the east, an Egyptian border to the south and the Mediterranean to the west, many fleeing Rafah went north.

They headed towards the nearby city of Khan Yunis as well as Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, where thousands of tents filled up the coast.

Ahmed Fadel, 22, is one of many retracing his steps, returning to the northern parts of Gaza he had fled earlier on in the war.

Originally from Gaza City, he was first displaced to Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, and then ordered to leave when Israeli troops entered the nearby Al-Bureij camp.

"We left and moved to Rafah but they pummelled and threatened the city, so we came to Deir al-Balah -- which is already crammed," he told AFP.

AFP journalists witnessed long lines of displaced Palestinians fleeing Rafah on cars, trucks, donkey-pulled carts, tuk-tuks or by foot, carrying what belongings they could.

AFP footage on Wednesday showed thousands of tents and shelters packed along Deir al-Balah's coastal area.

On the ground streets were packed with people unloading belongings or selling wares.

"Deir al-Balah is a small city", local merchant Abdelmajid al-Kurd told AFP.

"It's a very small town that is now extremely overcrowded", he said.

"There's no room or facilities to accommodate these people."

Hospitals have only three days' fuel left: WHO

Hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip have only three days of fuel left due to closed border crossings, the head of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

Despite international objections, Israel sent tanks into the overcrowded southern city of Rafah on Tuesday and seized the nearby crossing into Egypt that is the main conduit for aid into the besieged Palestinian territory.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said fuel that the UN health agency had expected to be allowed in on Wednesday had been blocked.

The Israeli authorities control the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

"The closure of the (Rafah) border crossing continues to prevent the UN from bringing fuel. Without fuel all humanitarian operations will stop. Border closures are also impeding delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza," Tedros said on X, formerly Twitter.

"Hospitals in the south of Gaza only have three days of fuel left, which means services may soon come to a halt."

Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories, told a press conference that fuel was critical to aid operations.

It is mainly used to power the generators that provide hospitals with the electricity they need to operate, but is also used so humanitarians can move around, and to keep bakeries running.

"What we all need, we humanitarians, is fuel, fuel, fuel," Peeperkorn said.

"Without fuel, all humanitarian operations, including hospital operations -- they come to a halt."

Israel bombarded Rafah on Wednesday as talks resumed in Cairo aimed at agreeing the terms of a truce in the seven-month war.

According to the Israeli authorities, the Kerem Shalom crossing -- closed on Tuesday because of Hamas rocket attacks -- and the Erez crossing are open, but it is not clear whether aid is entering Gaza or not.

"I can report that despite their (Hamas) best efforts, both Kerem Shalom and the Erez crossing... are open, with trucks carrying humanitarian aid already being processed," Israeli government spokesperson Avi Hyman told a press briefing.

According to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, no fuel or aid entered the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

- 'Total blockade' -

Tedros said Al-Najjar, one of the three hospitals in Rafah, had been forced to shut down due to the ongoing hostilities in the vicinity and the military operation in Rafah.

Its patients have been moved elsewhere and hospital staff were removing supplies and equipment to safeguard them.

"At a time when fragile humanitarian operations urgently require expansion, the Rafah military operation is further limiting our ability to reach thousands of people who have been living in dire conditions without adequate food, sanitation, health services and security," Tedros said.

"This must stop now."

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan insisted that Israel's Rafah incursion could not be characterised as a limited military operation, if "the first act of that offensive is to cut off the two lifelines to 2.5 million people in Gaza", he said, referring to the closed border crossings in the south.

"To stop the fuel, stop the food, stop the medicine at source at the border... I don't call that restricted. I call that a re-imposition of a total blockade."

The WHO has stocked some supplies in warehouses and hospitals, Tedros said, but without more aid flowing into Gaza, it would not be able to sustain life-saving support to hospitals.

Tedros also said that the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis had been cleaned up following an attack and siege earlier this year.

"They have recruited health workers and the hospital is ready to start receiving dialysis patients today," he told the press conference.

Gaza's bloodiest-ever war began following Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that 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 has conducted a retaliatory offensive that has killed more than 34,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Hamas naval commander killed

The Israeli military said Wednesday a recent air strike had killed the commander of Hamas's naval unit in Gaza City, accusing of "attacks" against troops during the seven-month war.

Mohammed Ahmed Ali was killed in an air strike "in the past day", the military said in a statement.

Hamas did not immediately comment when asked about Ali's killing.

Sources in the Palestinian militant group said he was a member of its armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades.

The military statement said that "during the war, Ali was responsible for attacks on Israeli territory and against IDF (army) ground troops operating in the Gaza Strip" including in central Gaza over the past week.

Hamas's armed wing has been engaged in fierce battles with Israeli forces across the Gaza Strip since war erupted on October 7 following the Palestinian group's attack on southern Israel.

Al-Qassam Brigades regularly launch rockets towards Israeli territory, and claimed a barrage on Sunday at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza that killed four soldiers.

Hamas's October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The Israeli army did not say whether it believed Ali had been involved in planning or executing the attack.

Israel's retaliatory military offensive in Gaza has killed at least 34,844 people, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.


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