A top UN official declared that ‘a million Gazans are staring death in the face’ and warned catastrophic human consequences could occur should Israel press on with an assault on the city of Rafah to root out Hamas.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said the Palestinian people have been subjected to an ‘assault that is unparalleled in its intensity, brutality and scope’ following months of incessant bombing by Israel’s Defence Forces.
But now he believes an Israeli invasion of Rafah – a town in the southern Gaza Strip where huge numbers of Palestinians have fled to escape Tel-Aviv’s bombing campaigns – would ‘leave an already fragile humanitarian operation at death’s door’ and lead to a ‘slaughter’.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently vowed that his forces would achieve ‘total victory’ over Hamas and believes several militant leaders are holed up in the city.
Mediators are now racing to secure a pause to the fighting before Israel proceeds with its full-scale ground incursion into Rafah.
Before the war the city was home to some 250,000 people, but there are now thought to be up to 1.2 million Palestinians trapped there with ‘nowhere safe to go’, according to Griffiths.
The Hamas attack that launched the war resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians.
But least 28,473 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s response, according to the Hamas run Gaza health ministry.
Destruction following an Israeli military operation in Al Bureije refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 13 February 2024. More than 28,300 Palestinians and over 1,300 Israelis have been killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), since Hamas militants launched an attack against Israel from the Gaza Strip on 07 October 2023
Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment over Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 12, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group
A view of destruction at UNRWA headquarters in Gaza
Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has warned that dire human consequences would occur should Israel invade Rafah
Destruction following an Israeli military operation in Al Bureije refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 13 February 2024
Displaced Palestinians who fled their houses due tor Israeli strikes take shelter in a tent camp, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13, 2024
Palestinians migrate to the middle parts of Gaza after attacks on Rafah intensify in Gaza on February 13, 2024
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on Feb. 7, 2024
A team of international negotiations met in Cairo yesterday to begin talks in a last ditch effort to avoid mass casualties and hash out a ceasefire.
And today a Hamas source told AFP that a delegation was headed to the Egyptian capital to meet Egyptian and Qatari mediators, after Israeli negotiators held talks with the mediators on Tuesday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an outspoken critic of Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war, was also due in Cairo Wednesday for talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
CIA Director William Burns had joined Tuesday’s talks with David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, which Egyptian media said had been mostly ‘positive’.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the negotiations as ‘constructive and moving in the right direction’, but there was no expectation that a deal was close to being reached.
A separate proposal thrashed out with Israeli negotiators in Paris late last month has also gone back and forth, but is yet to come to fruition.
Hamas officials meanwhile told reporters that they ‘are awaiting the outcome of the Cairo meetings, and Hamas is open to discussing any initiative that achieves an end to aggression and war’.
In the meantime, the potential for mass civilian casualties in the event of an Israeli attack on Rafah has triggered urgent appeals, even from close allies, for Israel to hold off sending troops into the last major population centre they have yet to enter in the four-month war.
Key ally the United States has said it will not back any ground operation in Rafah without a ‘credible plan’ for protecting civilians.
Rafah is the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies and UN agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster if an assault goes ahead.
Terrified civilians have been locked in a desperate search for safety.
‘My three children were injured, where can I go?’ Dana Abu Chaaban asked at the city’s border crossing with Egypt, where she was hoping to be allowed across with her bandaged-up sons.
Pressure has grown on Egypt to open its border to Palestinian civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom have sought shelter in makeshift camps by the border where they face outbreaks of hepatitis and diarrhoea and a scarcity of food and water.
But it remains closed to Gazans.
A displaced Palestinian child who fled her house due to Israeli strikes holds a crying baby, as they take shelter in a tent camp amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 13 , 2024
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks, at a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah following their meeting, at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2024
A Palestinian man looks at the site of an Israeli strike on a mosque, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 12, 2024.
Israeli soldiers drive a tank on the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024
Buildings lie in ruin in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 13, 2024
This combination of pictures shows (L to R) CIA Director William Burns, Israel’s Mossad Director David Barnea and Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani
‘For 100 days we enter the crossing and beg them to let us cross, or to do anything to help us,’ Habiba Nakhala said.
US President Joe Biden has said civilians in Rafah ‘need to be protected’, calling them ‘exposed and vulnerable’ following a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Abdullah also pushed for a full ceasefire to end the four-month-old war.
‘We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah. It is certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe,’ he said. ‘We need a lasting ceasefire now.’
But Biden’s caution comes as a mammoth aid package that earmarks $14billion to support Israel’s war in Gaza was approved by the US Senate.
Two-thirds of the $90billion package is destined for Ukraine to support President Zelensky’s armed forces amid their ongoing war with Russia, and a further $10billion will be set aside for humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican party, which is expected to put up resistance after several prominent Republican lawmakers criticised the package.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has said ‘complete victory’ cannot be achieved without the elimination of Hamas’s last battalions in Rafah, suggesting Tel-Aviv’s troops intend to forge on with the planned military operation into the city.
As the truce talks go on in Cairo, the Israeli military has kept up its bombardment of Gaza.
The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said Wednesday that 104 people had been killed overnight.
Late Tuesday, the military released a video it said was from a security camera and showed Gaza’s Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar and family members escaping through a tunnel days after the October 7 attack that launched the war.
‘The hunt will not stop until he is captured alive or dead,’ Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari told reporters.
Black and white images (one pictured above), reportedly taken on October 10, show a man said to be Sinwar being led through a tunnel together with a woman and three children are said to be the first of him since the Israel-Hamas war broke out
Hagari said the video (a grab of which is pictured above) had been filmed on October 10, three days after Hamas carried out an attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 people, mostly civilians
Some Gazans in Rafah were already packing up their belongings in readiness to move but others vowed to stay put, fearing even greater misery in the bombed out hometowns they fled.
Ahlam Abu Assi said she ‘would rather die’ in Rafah than return to the famine-like conditions facing relatives who stayed in Gaza City.
‘My son and his children have nothing to eat. They cook a handful of rice and save it for the next day,’ she told AFP. ‘My grandson cries from hunger.’
Around 130 of an estimated 250 people taken hostage by Palestinian militants during the attack are believed to remain in Gaza.
Israel says 29 of them are presumed dead.
Ahead of the Cairo truce talks, the Israeli campaign group Hostages and Missing Families Forum sent the Mossad chief a plea saying the delegation must ‘not return without a deal’.
Asked by reporters whether he believes the Americans among the hostages were still alive, National Security Council spokesperson Kirby said: ‘We don’t have any information to the contrary.’