Guterres warns of nightmarish consequences of Israeli ground assault on Rafah, reiterates plea for 'immediate ceasefire' - as it happened

Ahram Online , Wednesday 7 Feb 2024

Egypt will host a new round of Israel-Gaza ceasefire talks on Thursday, reported Al-Qahera News TV. The talks, sponsored by Egypt and Qatar, focus on reaching a truce in the war-ravaged strip and a detainee swap deal, Egyptian sources said.

Students hold up placards during a demonstration as they walk out of Schools and Universities to demand for the end of bombing of Gaza, in London, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. AP


22:45 The war raged on unabated in Gaza, where the health ministry said at least 123 people were killed in the past 24 hours and AFP journalists reported more heavy bombing of southern cities.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that if Israel presses into Gaza's far-southern Rafah, it "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences."

"It is time for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages," he added in a speech to the General Assembly.

AFPTV footage showed frantic scenes of Palestinians running for their lives, many screaming, as gunfire rang out from advancing Israeli forces in a Gaza City neighbourhood.

Hamas captured 250 Israelis and individuals from other nationalities on 7 October.

The Palestinian group released tens of captives as part of the November truce deal but still holds 132 Israelis captured on 7 October.

Meanwhile, Israel has been holding more than 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners in its jails -  many for years and some for decades.

Moreover, Israel has arrested more than 6,500 Palestinians in deadly raids on various towns in the occupied West Bank since 7 October.

Israeli air strikes and a ground offensive have killed at least 27,708 people, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

In Israel, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said those still in captivity "face darkness, hunger, fear, loneliness and sexual abuse" and warned that "if we don't get them out of there immediately, they may not survive another day."

At least 29 Israeli captives have been killed in the Israeli bombing of Gaza.

Fear has grown among the more than one million Palestinians now crowded into Gaza's far south, around the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, as the battlefront has crept ever closer.

"I am terrified that Israel will begin a ground operation in Rafah," said Dana Ahmed, 40, who was displaced from Gaza City with her three children and now lives in a tent in Rafah.

She said she spent a sleepless night as Israeli fighter jets roared through the sky and explosions shook the ground.

"I cannot imagine what will happen to us," she said. "Where will we go now? The situation is catastrophic. I feel like I am living a horror movie.

22:00 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a visit to Israel Wednesday voiced hope for a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal but cautioned that more negotiations were needed.

"There's a lot of work to be done, but we are very much focused on doing that work and hopefully being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted" after a week-long truce in November, he said.

As Blinken met Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, an Egyptian official told AFP that "a new round of negotiations" would start on Thursday in Cairo aimed at achieving "calm in the Gaza Strip," now in its fifth month of war.

A Hamas source with knowledge of the matter said the Palestinian militant group had agreed to the talks, with the goal of "a ceasefire, an end to the war and a prisoner exchange deal."

Last week, a Hamas source said the proposed new truce calls for a six-week pause to fighting and a hostage-prisoner exchange, as well as more aid for Gaza, but negotiations have continued since.

The US top envoy, on his fifth Middle East tour since 7 October, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders of his war cabinet.

On the eve of their talks, Netanyahu had said that Israel's overall war aim remained unchanged: "We are on the way to total victory and we will not stop." 

"While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas's response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there," Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv hours after meeting Netanyahu.

Asked about Netanyahu's rejection, Blinken said he is "not going to speak for Israel" but that the Hamas counter-proposal at least offered an opportunity "to pursue negotiations" on hostages

Blinken also made a new plea for more aid to Gaza, whose 2.4 million people have endured a crippling siege and severe shortages of clean water, food, fuel and medical supplies.

"We all have an obligation to do everything possible to get the necessary assistance to those who so desperately need it," Blinken said.

"And the steps that are being taken -- additional steps that need to be taken -- are the focus of my own meetings here."

Blinken later travelled to the occupied West Bank where he met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

20:45 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said he had ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in Rafah in southern Gaza and that a "total victory" by Israel over Hamas was just months away.

He said accepting the Palestinian militant group's "bizarre demands" for a ceasefire would not lead to the return of hostages.

"It will only invite another massacre," he said in a televised briefing to journalists.

20:00 Israel's military on Wednesday proposed increasing the country's mandatory enlistment and reserve service commitments "in light of the war's challenges."

The army issued a statement outlining the proposed lengthening of required military service from 32 months to 36 months for men, and women serving in certain roles.

It also proposed increasing the required number of days of reserve service and extending the maximum age of soldiers and officers in the reserves.

The proposed changes require approval by parliament to go into effect.

Israel has called up at least 287,000 reservists since the outbreak of war four months ago.

19:00 Parents and children organized a demonstration in central London as students walked out of Schools and Universities in the UK on Wednesday to demand the end of the bombing of Gaza.

The walkout and demonstrations were called by British associations Stop the War Coalition (StWC) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). 

Children read statements during a press conference taking place in front of Elizabeth Tower, commonly known by the name of the clock's bell "Big Ben", at the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament.

Children wrote on the floor with coloured pieces of chalk "Stop Bombing Children"! 

View the full gallery here

18:00 Here is a list of the names we know from the more than 11,500 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s continuing war on Gaza.

17:00 Israel is exploiting the Gaza war to intensify its settlement building on the West Bank in contravention of international law, writes Monjed Jadou in Ramallah in this week's edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Many Palestinians say that Israel is waging a campaign of annihilation against the people of Gaza, with its eyes also set on the West Bank where it is expanding its settlements.

The extreme right-wing government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers settlement expansion to be a key tool for garnering voter support. As a result, the Occupied Palestinian Territories are witnessing a surge in settlement activities on multiple fronts.

Despite US President Joe Biden’s announcement of punitive measures against four settlers in the West Bank for threatening Palestinian security, according to the US designation, Palestinians believe that this step not a deterrent to the settlement activities.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Yoel Smotrich announced the convening of the Israeli government’s Planning and Construction Committee to discuss the construction of 7,000 settlement units just one day after the US administration’s announcement.

Israeli settlers also carried out more attacks against Palestinians, the latest of which occurred in the Auja area of Jericho.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the decision of the US administration to impose sanctions on the settlers. However, it also considers that the international reaction to the violence of the Israeli settlers is weak, despite the positions of several countries in rejecting the settlements and imposing sanctions on settlers.

These responses remain insufficient and do not constitute sufficient sanctions to stop their crimes.

Read the full report here

16:00 Israeli plans to starve the population of the Gaza Strip are in full swing, with more than two million people now facing crisis-level food insecurity, according to international estimates, reports Alaa Al-Mashharawi in Gaza in this week's edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

The spectre of mass starvation is looming ever closer in Gaza as the brutal Israeli assault on the Strip enters its fifth month.

Amidst a landscape of total destruction, epidemic diseases are spreading due to a lack of clean water, bodies are rotting beneath the ubiquitous rubble, and polluted ground water, contaminated food, and overcrowding are daily facts of life.

The dire conditions are aggravated by a collapsed healthcare sector and the lack of proper sanitation facilities, medicines, and healthcare services.

Nearly two million displaced people out of a pre-war population of 2.4 million are struggling to survive on less than a bare minimum of food and water in shelters, public buildings, and the homes of friends.

In a recent report, The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) initiative, which the UN and other organizations use, warned of the high risk of famine in Gaza, saying that the risk increases every day the war continues.

At least one in four households in Gaza, or more than half a million people, fall into what the report calls Phase 5: Catastrophe. The most severe alert signifies that the households are “experiencing an extreme lack of food, starvation, and the exhaustion of coping capacities.”

Another 1.17 million people, or about 50 per cent of the population, are in Phase 4: Emergency, signifying that the spectre of starvation is very real.

Read the full report here

15:10 A 77-year-old Palestinian patient died due to an oxygen shortage at Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis on Wednesday morning, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said on X.

“The hospital has been suffering from a severe oxygen shortage for days, affecting the intensive care unit and hospitalized patients,” the PRCS added.

On Tuesday, around 8,000 displaced people had been evacuated from the besieged Al-Amal Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, where they had sought refuge, after weeks of heavy Israeli shelling and fighting nearby, according to the Red Cross.



15:00 The health ministry in Gaza said on Wednesday at least 27,708 Palestinians have been killed in the territory during the Israeli war on Gaza.

The latest toll includes 123 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, while a total of 67,147 people have been wounded in Gaza since the war broke out on 7 October.

14:50  A previously scheduled one-on-one meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Army Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi will not take place, amid reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office opposed a meeting between a foreign diplomat and the military without the presence of elected leaders, Times of Israel reported.

Halevi is now participating in the meeting between Blinken and Netanyahu and his aides and members of the war cabinet, the Israeli outlet said.

Moments earlier, the prime minister's office said Netanyahu and Blinken held a one-on-one meeting in occupied Jerusalem to discuss the state of the war in Gaza, without giving further details.

14:00 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has highlighted the dire consequences of possible funding cuts, which could result in the loss of essential services for over 250,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, including cancer patients, young students, and impoverished families. According to UNRWA's country director Dorothee Klaus, about 80 percent of these Palestinians are already living below the poverty line.

The funding crisis arose from allegations made by Israel, accusing twelve UNRWA staff members of involvement in the attacks that occurred on 7 October. Consequently, sixteen countries have suspended their aid to the agency, which had previously contributed $546 million to UNRWA's annual budget of $1.16 billion. Notably, the United States and Germany, the agency's top two contributors, are among the countries that have halted their financial support.

UNRWA, which employs 30,000 staff members across the region, serves nearly six million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Dorothee Klaus has emphasized the severe impact that the fresh budget cuts will have, stating that without funding, the agency's operations will come to a halt in March.

Despite the allegations of UNRWA staff involvement in the October attacks, the agency, along with its Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination recognizes their "fundamental" efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Among the other nominees on the shortlist are the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the International Court of Justice, Article 36 and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and the UNESCO and the Council of Europe.



13:30 The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that in January, amid ongoing intense Israeli hostilities, the ability of humanitarian aid missions to support people across Gaza deteriorated compared with October-December 2023. 

Departing from the southern governorate of Rafah, aid missions increasingly had their access denied to areas north of Wadi Gaza, as well as to areas of the south, which are increasingly requiring coordination with the Israeli army due to geographical shifts in conflict activity.

Such missions were increasingly interfered with or delayed programmatically by Israeli forces, OCHA said in a report.

According to OCHA, 56 percent of the planned aid missions to northern Gaza were denied access by the Israeli authorities.

In the south, 25 percent of the planned aid missions were denied access, and 11 percent were postponed internally.



12:30 The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza announced on Wednesday that parts of hospitals in northern Gaza are operational, DPA said.

"We were able to operate parts of the hospitals in northern Gaza, but we need the arrival of medical supplies and fuel and the return of medical teams from the south to continue their work," Ashraf Al-Qudra, health ministry spokesman, said in a post on Facebook on Wednesday.

The spokesman pointed out that 11,000 wounded and sick people urgently need to leave the Gaza Strip to save their lives.



12:00 Qatar has offered Hamas an incentive package in exchange for retracting the group’s request for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, Sky News Arabia reported citing sources.

The sources said that Qatar is trying to soften Hamas’s demands for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, hoping to replace it with a pledge to push Israel to withdraw its forces.

Furthermore, Qatar pledged to Hamas that Israel would agree to the release of 3,000-5,000 Palestinian prisoners, whom Hamas could choose, under a captive release deal.

According to the report, Qatar also offered the return of displaced Gazans to their homes, the construction of better refugee camps, and renewed water and sewage services.

The sources added that "the Qatari mediator conveyed to Hamas an Israeli threat that if the deal was rejected, Israel would start a ground offensive into Rafah."

11:45 Israel announced the death of a reservist who was wounded in a battle in northern Gaza and infected with a dangerous fungus, bringing the death toll among Israeli troops to 227 since Israel started its ground offensive in Gaza.

As the Palestinian groups continue to put on stiff resistance in the battles, Al-Quds Brigades said its fighters killed seven Israeli soldiers, who were barricading themselves in an apartment near a school west of Khan Younis after targeting them with a shell.

Al-Qassam Brigades also announced the targeting of a group of Israeli soldiers barricaded in a house in Khan Younis, according to AL Jazeera.

On Tuesday, AP reported that Hamas and its police force have returned to the streets in places where Israeli troops have pulled back in the north.

Residents told AP that Hamas-led security forces, which numbered tens of thousands before the war, have begun to reappear in some areas, where they focus on distributing civil salaries and cracking down on looters.

11:30 Israeli officials responded to the captives deal draft issued by Hamas asking for the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza, saying: “We won’t be able to accept a demand to stop the war,” Israeli Ynet reported.

“The draft asks for the release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, some of which are high-profile,” they added.



10:30 Hamas has proposed a ceasefire plan that would quiet the guns in Gaza for four and a half months leading to an end to the war, in response to a proposal sent last week by Qatar and Egypt mediators and backed by the United States and Israel, Reuters reported.

According to a draft document seen by Reuters, Hamas' counterproposal envisions three phases lasting 45 days each.

According to Hamas' proposal, all Israeli women captives, males under 19, the elderly, and the sick would be released during the first 45-day phase in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails.

The remaining male captives would be released during the second phase, and the remains would be exchanged in the third phase. By the end of the third phase, Hamas would expect the sides to have reached an agreement on an end to the war.

The group said in an addendum to the proposal that it wished for the release of 1500 prisoners, a third of whom it wanted to select from the list of Palestinians handed life sentences by Israel.

The truce would also increase the flow of food and other aid into Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a late-night meeting with Mossad Director David Barnea amid negotiations over a captives deal, according to Times of Israel.

On Tuesday, Mossad said it received the Hamas response and its details are being evaluated.

09:00 Saudi Arabia has told Washington it will not establish ties with Israel until an independent Palestinian state "is recognized," the Gulf kingdom's foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Israeli "aggression" in Gaza must also stop, and all Israeli forces must withdraw from the besieged territory, the statement said. 

Wednesday's statement came in response to comments by White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who told reporters on Tuesday that talks on Saudi-Israeli normalization were "ongoing" and that Washington had "received positive feedback from both sides that they're willing to continue to have those discussions."

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