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Gaza fighting rages after Israel vows to intensify Rafah offensive


May 17, 2024 03:57 PM

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Fighting raged Friday in Gaza after Israel vowed to intensify its ground offensive in Rafah despite international concerns for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians in the southern city.

With Gazans facing hunger, the US military said "trucks carrying humanitarian assistance began moving ashore via a temporary pier" it set up to aid Palestinians in the besieged territory.

Witnesses reported fierce battles overnight in and around the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.

Israeli helicopters carried out heavy strikes around Jabalia while army artillery hit homes near Kamal Adwan hospital in the camp, they said.

The bodies of six people were retrieved and several wounded people were evacuated after an air strike targeted a house in Jabalia, Gaza's Civil Defence agency said.

Rescue teams were trying to recover people from under the rubble of the Shaaban family home on Al-Faluja Street in the camp, it added.

Witnesses said Israeli warships launched strikes on Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where more than 1.4 million Palestinian civilians have been sheltering.

Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a statement that it "targeted enemy forces stationed inside the Rafah border crossing... with mortar shells".

The war broke out after the October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Out of 252 people taken hostage that day, 128 are still being held inside Gaza, including 38 who the army says are dead.

Israel vowed in response to crush Hamas and launched a military offensive on Gaza, where at least 35,303 people have been killed since the war erupted, according to data provided by the health ministry of Hamas-run territory.

- Netanyahu says Rafah 'critical' -

Israel has vowed to "intensify" its ground offensive in Rafah, in defiance of global warnings over the fate of Palestinians sheltering there.

Israel's top ally the United States has joined other major powers in appealing for it to hold back from a full ground offensive in Rafah.

But Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday said "additional forces will enter" the Rafah area and "this activity will intensify".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Thursday that the ground assault on Rafah was a "critical" part of the army's mission to destroy Hamas and prevent any repetition of the October 7 attack.

"The battle in Rafah is critical... It's not just the rest of their battalions, it's also like an oxygen line for them for escape and resupply," he said.

The Israeli siege of Gaza has brought dire shortages of food as well as safe water, medicines and fuel for its 2.4 million people.

The arrival of occasional aid convoys has slowed to a trickle since Israeli forces took control last week of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing.

- Maritime corridor -

US troops on Thursday anchored a long-awaited temporary pier aimed at delivering emergency aid to a Gaza beach.

The first trucks carrying aid rumbled down the pier on Friday morning, said the US Central Command, or CENTCOM.

"This is an ongoing, multinational effort to deliver additional aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza via a maritime corridor that is entirely humanitarian in nature," it said.

It issued pictures showing humanitarian aid being lifted onto a barge in the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod, adding in a post on social media platform X that no US troops went ashore.

Around 500 tonnes of aid is expected to enter Gaza in the coming days, according to CENTCOM.

The United Nations has warned, however, that the maritime aid corridor, and ongoing airdrops from planes, cannot replace far more efficient overland truck deliveries.

Many of those fleeing Rafah have headed for the coastal area of Al-Mawasi that Israel has declared a "humanitarian zone".

Satellite images also show a vast new tent city that has sprung up near the main southern city of Khan Yunis.

Many of the displaced are "exhausted, they are scared, they don't have resources", said Javed Ali, head of emergency response in Gaza for International Medical Corps.

- Arab call for peacekeepers -

On the diplomatic front, the Arab League issued a call on Thursday for "international protection and peacekeeping forces of the United Nations" to be deployed in Palestinian territories.

In a statement at the end of a summit in Bahrain, the 22-member bloc also appealed for an "immediate" ceasefire in Gaza and an end to forced displacement in the narrow coastal territory.

The United States said a UN peacekeeping force could compromise Israel's efforts to defeat Hamas, while stopping short of opposing it.

"Candidly, the addition of additional security forces could potentially put that mission into compromise," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.

But he said the United States did not yet have a "conclusive assessment" of the summit's statement and suggested that a force could be more acceptable once a ceasefire is in place.

Despite previous threats by President Joe Biden to withhold some arms deliveries over the Rafah offensive, his administration informed Congress this week of a new $1 billion weapons package for Israel, sources told AFP.

At the United Nations' top court in The Hague, Israel hit back on Friday at allegations from South Africa that it has escalated a campaign of "genocide" with its military operation in Rafah.

"There is a tragic war going on but there is no genocide," its lawyer Gilad Noam told the International Court of Justice, arguing the accusations are "completely divorced from the facts".


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