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Rafah assault 'could lead to a bloodbath', warns WHO chief

Hamas says delegation heading to Cairo for truce talks

By AFP

May 4, 2024 09:06 AM


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An Israeli military incursion into Gaza's southern city of Rafah could lead to a "bloodbath", the World Health Organization warned Friday, announcing contingency plans.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to crush Hamas's remaining fighters in Rafah, where much of Gaza's population has sought refuge from nearly seven months of war.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of possible dire implications for the 1.2 million people sheltering in Rafah.

"WHO is deeply concerned that a full-scale military operation in Rafah, Gaza, could lead to a bloodbath, and further weaken an already broken health system," Tedros said on X, formerly Twitter.

In a statement, the WHO announced contingency efforts, but warned "the broken health system would not be able to cope with a surge in casualties and deaths that a Rafah incursion would cause".

"This contingency plan is Band-Aids," Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories, told reporters in Geneva. "It will absolutely not prevent the expected substantial additional mortality and morbidity caused by a military operation."

According to the WHO, most of the besieged territory's health facilities have been damaged or destroyed amid heavy Israeli bombardment.

Only 12 of Gaza's 36 hospitals and 22 of its 88 primary health facilities are "partially functional", the UN health agency said.

"As part of contingency efforts, WHO and partners are urgently working to restore and resuscitate health services," the statement said.

It added that Rafah's three currently operational hospitals would become unreachable "when hostilities intensify in their vicinity".

Instead, the WHO is working to restore south Gaza's largest hospital, the Nasser Medical Complex in nearby Khan Yunis, and establish additional medical sites.

"The ailing health system will not be able to withstand the potential scale of devastation that the incursion will cause," Peeperkorn said.

A military operation in Rafah could spark a new wave of displacement, leading to more overcrowding, limited access to food, water and sanitation and more outbreaks of disease, he added.

In its statement, the WHO called "for an immediate and lasting ceasefire and the removal of the obstacles to the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance into and across Gaza, at the scale that is required."

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, said that a military operation in Rafah "could lead to a slaughter".

"For agencies already struggling to provide humanitarian aid in Gaza, a ground invasion would strike a disastrous blow," he told reporters.

"Any ground operation would mean more suffering and death."

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war started after an unprecedented attack on southern Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas on October 7, 2023.

The attack resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 128 remain in Gaza. The army says 35 of them are dead.

Israel's relentless retaliatory military offensive has killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza -- most of them women and children -- according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Hamas delegation heading to Cairo for truce talks

Hamas said its delegation will travel to Cairo on Saturday to resume Gaza ceasefire talks with a "positive spirit" in the latest effort to halt almost seven months of war with Israel.

Foreign mediators have been waiting for a Hamas response to a proposal to halt the fighting for 40 days and exchange hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

"We emphasise the positive spirit with which the Hamas leadership dealt with the ceasefire proposal it recently received, and we are going to Cairo in the same spirit to reach an agreement," the Palestinian militant group posted on its website on Friday.

"We in Hamas and the Palestinian resistance forces are determined to achieve an agreement that fulfils our people's demands for a complete cessation of the aggression, the withdrawal of the occupation forces, the return of the displaced, relief and reconstruction, and a serious exchange deal," the statement said.

A major stumbling block has been that, while Hamas has demanded a lasting ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to crush its remaining fighters in the far-southern city of Rafah, which is packed with displaced civilians.

The hawkish prime minister has insisted he will send ground troops into Rafah, despite strong concerns voiced by UN agencies and ally Washington for the safety of the 1.2 million civilians inside the city.

A top Hamas official accused Netanyahu on Friday of trying to derail a proposed Gaza truce and hostage release deal with his threats to keep fighting the militants.

"Netanyahu was the obstructionist of all previous rounds of dialogue... and it is clear that he still is," senior Hamas official Hossam Badran told AFP by telephone.

- 'Broken health system' -

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency was "deeply concerned that a full-scale military operation in Rafah... could lead to a bloodbath".

"The broken health system would not be able to cope with a surge in casualties and deaths that a Rafah incursion would cause," an agency statement said.

Badran charged that Netanyahu's insistence on attacking Rafah was calculated to "thwart any possibility of concluding an agreement" in the negotiations brokered by Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators.

Israeli air strikes killed several more people in Rafah overnight, Palestinian medics and the civil defence agency said.

One bereaved resident, Sanaa Zoorob, said her sister and six of her nieces and nephews were killed.

Two of the children "were found in pieces in their mother's embrace", Zoorob said, appealing for "a permanent ceasefire and a full withdrawal from Gaza".

- Wave of campus protests -

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

The militants also took some 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 128 remain in Gaza.

The army says 35 of them are dead, including 49-year-old Dror Or, a resident of the badly hit kibbutz Beeri, whose death was confirmed by authorities on Friday.

Israel's devastating retaliatory campaign has killed at least 34,622 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Israel has weathered an international backlash over the spiralling death toll.

Pro-Palestinian protests that have rocked US campuses for weeks were more muted Friday after a series of clashes with police, mass arrests and a stern White House directive to restore order.

But similar demonstrations have spread to campuses in Britain, France, Mexico, Australia and elsewhere.

Turkey announced on Thursday that it was suspending all trade with Israel, valued by the government at $9.5 billion a year.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the move was intended to "force Israel to agree to a ceasefire and increase the amount of humanitarian aid to enter" Gaza.

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who have carried out months of attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea in a costly blow to maritime trade, said they would extend their attacks on Israel-bound shipping to the Mediterranean "immediately".

- Famine threat remains -

Israel's siege has pushed many of Gaza's 2.4 million people to the brink of famine.

US pressure has prompted Israel to facilitate more aid deliveries to Gaza, including through the reopened Erez crossing that leads directly into the hardest-hit north.

Food availability has improved "a little bit", said the WHO's representative in the Palestinian territories, Rik Peeperkorn.

But he warned that the threat of famine had "absolutely not" gone away.

Five Israeli human rights groups that took Israel to court over restrictions on aid to Gaza said the state's insistence that it has met its obligations was "incomprehensible".

The government had told the supreme court that the steps it had taken went "above and beyond" its obligations under international law.

Gisha and four other Israeli non-profit organisations retorted that the shortages evident inside Gaza indicated "the respondents are not meeting their obligations, not to the required extent nor at the necessary speed".

The US-based charity World Central Kitchen resumed operations this week, after suspending them in the aftermath of Israeli drone strikes that killed seven of its staff as they unloaded aid in Gaza on April 1.

World Central Kitchen was involved in an effort earlier this year to establish a new maritime aid corridor to Gaza from Cyprus to help compensate for dwindling deliveries by land from Israel.

The project suffered a new blow Friday when the US military announced high winds had forced troops working to assemble a temporary aid pier off the Gaza coast to relocate to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Several Arab and Western governments have also airdropped aid into northern Gaza. Civil defence spokesman Mahmud Basal said one person was killed and several injured when they were hit by falling pallets.


AFP


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