News

Hamas warns Israeli invasion of Rafah will 'torpedo' hostage talks

By AFP

February 11, 2024 09:37 PM


Hamas warned Israel on Sunday that a ground offensive into Gaza's far-southern city of Rafah, crowded with displaced Palestinians, would imperil the release of hostages held by militants in the besieged territory.

Foreign governments, including Israel's key ally the United States, and aid groups have voiced deep concern over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's vow to extend operations.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, has remained the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing Israel's relentless bombardment elsewhere in the Gaza Strip in its four-month war against Hamas, triggered by the group's October 7 attack.

"Any attack by the occupation army on the city of Rafah would torpedo the exchange negotiations," a Hamas leader told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Israeli premier has told troops to prepare to go into the city which now hosts more than half of Gaza's total population, spurring concern about the impact on displaced civilians.

Netanyahu told US broadcaster ABC News that those who urged Israel not to go into Rafah were effectively giving Hamas licence to remain.

In an interview aired Sunday, Netanyahu insisted the Rafah operation would go ahead "while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave".

Some 1.4 million people have crowded into Rafah, with many living in tents amid increasingly scarce supplies of food, water and medicine.

Mediators have held new talks in Cairo for a pause in the fighting and the release of at least some of the 132 hostages Israel says are still in Gaza, including 29 thought to be dead.

Hamas seized some 250 hostages on October 7, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures, and dozens were released during a one-week truce in November.

Hamas's military wing on Sunday said two hostages had been killed and eight others seriously wounded in Israeli bombardment in recent days, a claim AFP is unable to independently verify.

Israeli strikes have long hit targets in Rafah, and combat on Sunday seemed intense several kilometres (miles) to the north in Khan Yunis city, where AFP correspondents heard regular explosions and saw plumes of black smoke.

Israel's military said troops were conducting "targeted raids" in the west of Khan Yunis, an area where Hamas's armed wing reported violent clashes.

The Hamas-run territory's health ministry on Sunday reported 112 deaths over the previous 24 hours, and Hamas authorities added there had been dozens of air strikes, including on Rafah.

  'Massacre' 

 Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel 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 has responded with a relentless offensive in Gaza that the territory's health ministry says has killed at least 28,176 people, mostly women and children.

On ABC, Netanyahu claimed Israeli forces have "killed and wounded... about 12,000 fighters" of Hamas.

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were some of the latest to raise the alarm over the plan for Rafah, Gaza's last major population centre that Israeli troops have yet to enter.

"The OIC strongly warned that the continuation and expansion of the Israeli military aggression is part of rejected attempts to forcibly expel the Palestinian people from their land," the 57-nation Jeddah-based bloc said on social media.

It stressed "that such acts fall under genocide and would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and collective massacre".

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also rejected "forced" displacement of people from Rafah, evoking the trauma of Palestinians' mass exodus and forced displacement around the time of Israel's creation in 1948.

Denouncing a "genocide" in Gaza, thousands rallied Sunday in Morocco's capital Rabat and called on their government to undo a 2020 normalisation pact with Israel.

A French foreign ministry spokesman said "a large-scale Israeli offensive in Rafah would create a catastrophic humanitarian situation" and could lead to "disaster".

Earlier in the Gaza war Israel's military called on residents to evacuate areas "for their safety".

  'No place to escape'  

But Gazans, driven further and further south, have repeatedly said they can find no safe refuge from the fighting and bombing.

Farah Muhammad, 39, a mother of five displaced from northern Gaza, was at a loss to know what to do if troops move in to Rafah.

"There is no place to escape," she said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on social media platform X that "the people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air".

Saudi Arabia called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting, while Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the priority "must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out".

Netanyahu, whose coalition government includes far-right politicians, faces calls for early elections and mounting protests over his failure to bring home the hostages.

"It's clear Netanyahu is dragging out the war. He has no idea what to do on the day after," one protester, Gil Gordon, said in Tel Aviv.

Efrat Machikwa, a niece of captive Gadi Mozes, said Israelis "are with us, but we don't feel the government is".


AFP


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