UN alarm at Rafah invasion plan

Israeli soldiers operate at a location given as the Gaza Strip, during the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Picture: Reuters

Israeli soldiers operate at a location given as the Gaza Strip, during the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Picture: Reuters

Published Feb 27, 2024


Israel on Monday said that its army had readied a plan to evacuate Gazans ahead of a feared invasion of far-southern Rafah, leading the UN chief to warn a ground attack would “put the final nail in the coffin” of its aid operations.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Rafah – where 1.4 million Palestinians live in crowded shelters near the Egyptian border – is also “the core of the humanitarian aid operation” in besieged Gaza.

In another shock impact of the almost five-month-old war, Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in the occupied West Bank handed in his government’s resignation to the head of the Palestinian Authority, president Mahmud Abbas.

Shtayyeh cited “developments related to the aggression against the Gaza Strip and the escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem” where violence has surged amid the Gaza war started by Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Israel’s top ally, the US, and other powers discussing how a post-war Gaza could be ruled have called for a reformed Palestinian Authority to take charge of both the West Bank and Gaza in future. Shtayyeh, in brief comments, cited “the new reality in the Gaza Strip” and urged inter-Palestinian consensus and the “extension of the Authority’s rule over the entire land of Palestine”.

Heavy fighting raged on meanwhile in the Gaza Strip where Israeli forces launched new strikes and ground combat operations, killing 92 people overnight, according to the health ministry of the Hamas-ruled territory.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 29 782 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, said the ministry.

The war broke out after Hamas launched their unprecedented attack on October 7 which killed 1 160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, says Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed on Sunday that, despite ongoing talks towards a ceasefire, the army will launch a ground invasion of Rafah to achieve “total victory” over Hamas.

Netanyahu vowed that once land operations are launched there, an Israeli victory would be just “weeks away”. He said any potential truce deal would only delay, not prevent, the operation.

On Monday, his office said that the military had “presented the war cabinet with a plan for evacuating the population from areas of fighting in the Gaza Strip, and with the upcoming operational plan”. No details have been released on where the internally displaced people could go in Gaza, vast areas of which have been destroyed.

Neighbouring Egypt has built a large walled enclosure next to Gaza, where satellite photos also show many trucks, but Cairo has denied any plans to allow refugees across the border.

Foreign governments and aid groups have warned that a Rafah invasion would inflict mass civilian casualties. Guterres warned that “an all-out Israeli offensive on the city would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there; it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes”.

He said: “Nothing can justify Hamas’s deliberate killing, injuring, torturing and kidnapping of civilians, the use of sexual violence, or the indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israel. And nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

Nearly five months into the war, desperate families in Gaza’s north have been forced to scavenge for food as most aid trucks have been halted there, with many people eating animal fodder and the meat of slaughtered horses.

Mediators meanwhile continued stuttering negotiations towards a ceasefire and hostage release deal, with hopes it can be in place before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadaan in about two weeks.

Media reports suggest the warring parties are weighing a six-week halt to fighting and the initial exchange of dozens of women, underage and ill hostages for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

Envoys of the Israeli armed forces and Mossad spy service were headed to Qatar for further talks on a deal, Israeli media reported.

Israel has for months exchanged near-daily cross-border fire with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Israeli strikes near the Hezbollah-dominated city of Baalbek killed two group members on Monday, security sources said, in the first strikes on Lebanon’s east since clashes began after the Gaza war.

Israel said it targeted sites used by Hezbollah for its aerial defence system, in retaliation for a missile that downed an Israeli drone earlier on Monday.