Photo: Mohammed Abed Agence France-Presse Several countries have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the event of an assault on Rafah, where more than 1.3 million Palestinians are refugees, according to the UN.
Adel Zaanoun – Agence France-Presse and Emmanuel Duparcq – Agence France-Presse respectively in the Palestinian territories and in Jerusalem
February 11, 2024
- Middle East
Hamas warned on Sunday that an Israeli military offensive against Rafah, in the far south of the Gaza Strip, would threaten negotiations on the release of hostages held in the territory.
Abroad, several countries have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the event of an assault on the city where more than 1.3 million Palestinians are refugees, according to the UN. A large majority of them have fled the war that has been raging for four months between Israel and the Islamist movement.
The fighting seemed particularly intense on Sunday a few kilometers to the north, in Khan Younes, where the Israeli army has been tracking Hamas fighters for several weeks.
AFP correspondents heard regular explosions, planes flying overhead and saw several plumes of black smoke escaping from the city and its surroundings.
The Israeli army “continues to eliminate terrorists and conduct targeted operations in the west” of the city, she said.
“Those who say that we absolutely must not enter Rafah are in reality telling us that we must lose the war, and leave Hamas there,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to reports excerpts from an ABC News interview scheduled to air Sunday, calling Rafah the “last bastion” of the Islamist movement.
Israel will provide “safe passage for the civilian population so that they can leave” the city, backed by the closed border with Egypt, he added, without specifying where civilians could take refuge.
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“I don’t know where we will go” in the event of an offensive, replied AFP Farah Muhammad, who fled Gaza City in the north.
“There is no place to escape. I have no money to go to the center, the roads are dangerous and death is everywhere,” says this 39-year-old mother of five, who has lost all contact with her husband for a month.
“Any attack […] on the city of Rafah would threaten the negotiations” currently underway on an exchange between the hostages and Palestinians detained by Israel, a Hamas official told AFP on Sunday, who took power in Gaza in 2007.
What the prime minister and the army “failed to do in more than four months, they will fail to do no matter how long the war lasts,” he said. he said.
The war was sparked on October 7 by an unprecedented Hamas attack in southern Israel, which left more than 1,160 dead, mostly civilians killed that day, according to an AFP tally conducted in based on official Israeli data.
In retaliation, Israel vowed to “destroy” Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization along with the United States and the European Union in particular. The Israeli army launched an offensive which left 28,176 people dead in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians, according to a report released on Sunday by the Islamist movement's Ministry of Health.
Around 250 people were also kidnapped in Israel on October 7 and taken to Gaza. A week-long truce in November allowed the release of 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. According to Israel, 132 hostages are still being held, of whom 29 are believed to be dead.
Hamas' military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said Sunday that two hostages had died and eight others were seriously injured in bombings over the past four days.
Negotiations, conducted via mediation by Qatar and Egypt, are underway to reach a new, longer truce and new trade.
Faced with the prospect of a major offensive, pressure from foreign countries increases. The United Arab Emirates expressed “deep concern” over the “serious humanitarian repercussions” of an Israeli assault.
Qatar “strongly condemned” Israel’s threats to Rafah and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) denounced “attempts to forcibly expel the Palestinian people from their lands.”
In Tehran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi called on Sunday to exclude Israel from the UN, saying that the Israeli offensive in Gaza was “a crime against humanity”.
In Rabat, thousands of Moroccans marched on Sunday in support of the Palestinian people.
Saudi Arabia called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday.
For the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, an offensive in Rafah would cause “an indescribable humanitarian catastrophe”.
The United States, Israel's main ally, also toughened its tone, with American President Joe Biden deeming the Israeli “response” to the Hamas attack “excessive”.
Prices are exploding
About 1.7 million people, according to the UN, out of a total population of 2.4 million, have fled their homes since October 7, many of them displaced several times through the devastated territory, besieged by Israel and plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.
Rafah is the last major urban center where the army has not yet penetrated and the city has become a gigantic makeshift encampment. The humanitarian aid arriving there through Egypt is insufficient to feed the population who are seeing food prices soar.
“As if the bombings, killings and destruction were not enough, prices have increased as if we were in Europe,” said Abou Muhammad Rabie, 54, who tries to buy food at the market for his family in nine people. “We will die anyway, from the bombs or from hunger,” he says.
On their social networks, Hamas officials denounced on Sunday the dramatic humanitarian situation in the territory. They accuse Israeli forces of “preventing the arrival of aid” in Gaza, particularly in the north where fighting continues and where “the stage of catastrophe” has been passed.