Israel bombards Rafah ahead of talks aimed at sealing truce deal

Hamas said Monday evening that it had informed mediators Egypt and Qatar of its 'approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire'.

07 May 2024 10:19am
A picture taken on May 6, 2024 shows smoke billowing following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. - Photo by AFP
A picture taken on May 6, 2024 shows smoke billowing following bombardment east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. - Photo by AFP
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RAFAH - Israel carried out strikes on the Gazan city of Rafah overnight as it sought to put "pressure" on Hamas ahead of talks in Egypt on Tuesday aimed at sealing a truce proposal endorsed by the Palestinian fighters.

After having vowed for weeks to push into the southern border town, Israel called on Monday for Palestinians in eastern Rafah to leave for an "expanded humanitarian area" ahead of a ground incursion.

An AFP correspondent in the city reported heavy bombardment throughout the night, while the Kuwaiti hospital there said early Tuesday that five people had been killed and several others injured in Israeli strikes.

After talks earlier in the day failed to produce an agreement, Hamas said Monday evening that it had informed mediators Egypt and Qatar of its "approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire" in the seven-month-old genocide, prompting cheering crowds to take to the streets of Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the proposal "is far from Israel's essential demands", but the government would send negotiators for talks "to exhaust the potential for arriving at an agreement".

In the meantime, it added, "Israel is continuing the operation in Rafah to exert military pressure on Hamas in order to advance the release of our hostages".

Close Israeli ally the United States said it was "reviewing" the Hamas response.

Hamas member Khalil al-Hayya told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel that the proposal agreed to by Hamas involved a three-phase truce.

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He said it includes a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the return of Palestinians displaced by the mass killing and a hostage-prisoner exchange, with the goal of a "permanent ceasefire".

Qatar said that it was sending a delegation to Cairo on Tuesday morning to resume negotiations in the "hope that the talks will culminate in reaching an agreement for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza strip".

A senior Hamas official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Israel must now decide whether it accepts or "obstructs" a truce.

'Intolerable' invasion

Renewing the call for people to leave Rafah late Monday, Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said "aircraft targeted more than 50 terror targets in the Rafah area" throughout the day.

Hamas ally Islamic Jihad said Monday night that it had fired rockets from Gaza towards southern Israel in response.

International alarm has been steadily building about the consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, situated on the border with Egypt.

An incursion into the city would be "intolerable", UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday, calling on Israel and Hamas "to go an extra mile" to reach a ceasefire deal.

"This is an opportunity that cannot be missed, and a ground invasion in Rafah would be intolerable because of its devastating humanitarian consequences, and because of its destabilising impact in the region," Guterres said.

Egypt's foreign ministry warned of "grave humanitarian risks" for the more than one million Gazans sheltering there and urged Israel to "exercise the utmost restraint".

Jordanian King Abdullah II asked US President Joe Biden in talks Monday to intervene to stop a "new massacre" in Rafah.

In a conversation with Netanyahu on Monday, Biden restated "his clear position" opposing an invasion of the city, the White House said.

Netanyahu has vowed to eventually send ground troops into Rafah regardless of any truce, saying it needs to root out Hamas's remaining forces to prevent a repeat of the bloody October 7 attacks that sparked the genocide in Gaza.

'Thousands' leaving

Hamas's October 7 operations on Israel 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 launched a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,735 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Militants also abducted 250 hostages on October 7, of whom Israel estimates 128 remain in Gaza, including 35 whom the military says are dead.

The Hostage Families and Missing Families Forum said in a statement after Hamas's announcement Monday that "now is the time for all that are involved to fulfil their commitment and turn this opportunity into a deal for the return of all the hostages".

About 1.2 million people are sheltering in Rafah, the World Health Organization says.

Hamas said Israel was planning a large-scale offensive "without regard for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe" in the besieged Gaza Strip or for the fate of hostages held there.

Israel said its "limited" and temporary Rafah evacuation order aimed "to get people out of harm's way".

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported "thousands" of Gazans leaving the city's east.

'Where can we go?'

Israel's military in a statement urged those in eastern Rafah to head for the "expanded humanitarian area" at Al-Mawasi on the coast.

But aid groups said Al-Mawasi was not ready for such an influx.

Asked how many people should move, an Israeli military spokesman said: "The estimate is around 100,000 people."

The Red Crescent said the designated evacuation zone hosts around 250,000 people, many of them already uprooted from elsewhere.

Palestinian Abdul Rahman Abu Jazar, 36, said the area "does not have enough room for us to make tents" because it is already full.

"Where can we go?" he asked.

UNICEF warned that around 600,000 children packed into Rafah face "further catastrophe".

The main aid group in Gaza, UNRWA, said an Israeli Rafah offensive would mean "more civilian suffering and deaths", adding it was "not evacuating". - AFP

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