Hamas warns of Israeli offensive in Rafah
The Hamas movement has warned that an Israeli offensive in Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians are taking refuge, would crush hopes of releasing hostages held in the Gaza Strip.
American President Joe Biden has urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to « ensure the safety » of the Palestinian population, while several states have warned of a « humanitarian catastrophe » in case of an assault on the overcrowded city.
Rafah has become the last refuge for Palestinians trapped at the closed border with Egypt, numbering 1.4 million according to the UN, mostly consisting of displaced people who fled the four-month war between Israel and the Islamist movement.
Combat continued Sunday a few kilometers to the north in the mostly destroyed city of Khan Younès, where the Israeli army is tracking Hamas fighters.
Reporters from AFP have heard explosions and seen plumes of black smoke rising in the sky.
The Israeli army has released images showing soldiers on foot and tanks advancing in the ruins of Khan Younès, where gunfire could be heard.
« No more escape »
« Victory is at hand, » said Benjamin Netanyahu on the American channel ABC News, who has ordered his army to prepare an assault on the city. « We will take the last Hamas terrorist battalions and Rafah, which is the last bastion, » he assured.
Israel will provide « a safe passage for the civilian population to leave » the city, he added, without specifying where civilians could take refuge.
During a visit to a military base in southern Israel on Sunday, the Prime Minister stated his desire « to achieve the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. » « This requires our control (…) in terms of security over the entire region west of Jordan, including the Gaza Strip, » he claimed.
« I don’t know where we will go » in case of an offensive on Rafah, testified Farah Mohammad, who fled from the city of Gaza in the northern territory.
« There is no more place to escape. I have no money to go to the center, the roads are dangerous and death is everywhere, » said this 39-year-old mother, who lost all contact with her husband a month ago.
« Any attack (…) on the city of Rafah would torpedo the ongoing negotiations, » through mediation by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States, for an exchange between the hostages and Palestinians detained by Israel, a Hamas official told AFP Sunday.
This war was triggered on October 7 by an unprecedented attack carried out by Hamas commandos in southern Israel, which has killed more than 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to a count by AFP based on Israeli official data.
In retaliation, Israel has vowed to « destroy » Hamas, in power in Gaza since 2007, which it considers a « terrorist » organization, as do the United States and the European Union. The Israeli offensive has killed 28,176 people in the Gaza Strip, mostly civilians, according to the Health Ministry of the Islamist movement.
Hamas said Sunday that nearly 100 bodies had been discovered in two neighborhoods of the city of Gaza after the Israeli troop withdrawal, most of them killed by Israeli « snipers, » according to the group.
Another hundred hostages
Around 250 people were abducted in Israel on October 7 and taken to Gaza. A one-week truce in November allowed the release of 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. According to Israel, 132 hostages are still held in Gaza, 29 of whom are believed to have died.
The Hamas military wing said Sunday that two hostages had died and eight others had been seriously injured in bombings in the past four days.
In addition, the Israeli police and army announced on Sunday that they had killed two Palestinians who carried out knife attacks, one at a police checkpoint in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem and the other against an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian Health Ministry, which governs the autonomous areas of the West Bank, reported a 35-year-old Palestinian killed by Israeli forces near Bethlehem.
Faced with the prospect of a major offensive in Rafah, international pressure is increasing as the United States toughens its stance towards Israel.
The United Arab Emirates expressed concern about the « humanitarian repercussions » of an Israeli assault. Qatar « firmly condemned » Israel’s threats.
In Rabat, thousands of Moroccans marched in support of the Palestinian people.
According to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, an offensive in Rafah would cause « an indescribable humanitarian catastrophe. »
According to the UN, approximately 1.7 million people out of the total 2.4 million inhabitants have fled their homes since October 7 in the devastated Palestinian territory, besieged by Israel and plunged into a major humanitarian crisis. Many have been displaced multiple times, always fleeing further south as the fighting spreads.
Rafah, now a gigantic camp, is the last urban center where the Israeli army has not yet entered and the main entry point for insufficient humanitarian aid to meet the needs of the population threatened in the middle of winter by famine and epidemics.
Subscribe to access all of our content.