Israel planning offensive in Rafah: Defense minister

AP , Saturday 17 Feb 2024

Israel’s defense minister on Friday said Israel is planning a military attack in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, signaling determination to move ahead despite growing international concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge there.

Rafah
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. AP

 

U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Israel not to carry out the operation without a “credible” plan to protect civilians and to instead focus on a cease-fire, while Egypt has said an operation could threaten diplomatic relations between the countries.

Many other world leaders have issued similar messages of concern.

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, have crammed into Rafah, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory. Hundreds of thousands are living in sprawling tent camps.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Tel Aviv plans, however, to target Rafah.

“We are thoroughly planning future operations in Rafah, which is a significant Hamas stronghold,” he said. He declined to say when the operation might begin, though Israel has previously said it will first develop a plan to evacuate civilians.

Palestinians and international aid agencies say there is no safe place to go, with Israel also carrying out strikes in areas where it had told civilians to seek shelter, including Rafah.

The Israeli air and ground invasion has killed over 28,000 Palestinians, in vast majority women and children, caused widespread destruction, displaced some 80% of the population and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel not to push Palestinian civilians in Rafah across the border, saying a mass influx could lead to the end of the 1979 peace agreement between the two countries.

While some Israeli hard-liners have called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, Gallant said there were no plans to do so.

“The state of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt,” he said. “We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

New satellite photos indicated that Egypt is preparing for that very scenario. 

Diaa Rashwan, the Head of the State Information Service (SIS) in Egypt, has vehemently refuted these reports suggesting that Egypt intends to set up units to accommodate Palestinians at its Gaza border in the event of forced displacement resulting from Israeli attacks.

In a statement, Rashwan emphasized Egypt's firm rejection of any forced or voluntary displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza.

He underscored that such displacement would not be tolerated as it would undermine the Palestinian cause and pose a threat to Egypt's sovereignty and national security.

Rashwan further highlighted that Egypt has designated this issue as a "red line" and has affirmed its capability to address it promptly and effectively. He reiterated that Egypt will not take any actions on its land that contradict its explicit and unwavering stance on the matter.

The Israeli war has included months of airstrikes as well as a ground invasion that has steadily moved southward through most of Gaza.

In recent weeks, it has focused on Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city.

On Friday, Palestinian health officials in Khan Younis said that five patients in intensive care died after their oxygen ran out following a raid by Israeli troops in southern Gaza’s largest hospital.

The Israeli army has been searching the Nasser Hospital complex, arresting suspected Palestinians and searching for evidence that the remains of Israeli captives might be there.

Israel says it does not target patients or doctors, but staff say the facility is struggling under heavy fire and dwindling supplies, including food and water.

Gallant said 70 suspected Palestinians have been arrested at the hospital, including 20 who allegedly participated in the Oct. 7 operation.

Two Israeli airstrikes on Rafah overnight killed at least 13 people, including nine members of the same family, according to hospital officials.

Also on Friday, a Palestinian assailant opened fire at a bus stop on a busy intersection in southern Israel, killing two people and wounding four before being shot dead by a bystander. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

CEASE-FIRE STALLING

Negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza, meanwhile, appear to have stalled, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday pushed back hard against the U.S. vision for after the war — particularly its calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.

After speaking overnight with Biden and reportedly meeting with visiting CIA chief William Burns, Netanyahu wrote on X that Israel will not accept “international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.”

He said that if other countries unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state, it would give a “reward to terrorism.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected creation of a Palestinian state and even boasted about having been instrumental in preventing it during his time in office.

His governing coalition is dominated by hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence and any diplomatic process would likely lead to the collapse of the government.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until Hamas is destroyed and the more than 100 captives who remain in captivity are freed.

Biden on Friday urged Netanyahu to put off a Rafah operation and instead pursue a cease-fire that could include the release of Israeli captives.

“I’m still hopeful that that can be done and, in the meantime, I don’t anticipate, I’m hoping that, that the Israelis will not make any massive land invasion," Biden said. “My hope and expectation is that we'll get this hostage deal.”

UNRWA UNDER PRESSURE AGAIN

Gallant released new Israeli allegations against the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, including a photo of what he said was a U.N. social worker participating in the kidnapping of an Israeli on Oct. 7.

In his presentation to reporters, Gallant claimed Israeli intelligence has “significant indications” that more than 30 additional UNRWA workers joined the operation.

UNRWA’s commissioner, Philippe Lazzarini, says he takes the allegations seriously but has also pointed out that the 12 workers identified by Israel are a tiny fraction of UNRWA’s overall work force. He has warned that a halt in operations could endanger the well-being of Gazans who depend on the agency.

The agency did not comment on Gallant’s latest accusations but has said it regularly provides the names of its workers to Israel and takes action against anyone found to be violating U.N. rules of neutrality.

Throughout the war, Israel has released images of tunnels built next to UNRWA facilities and last month it claimed that 12 UNRWA employees had actively participated in the Oct. 7 operation.

Lazzarini told the Financial Times (FT) that Israel has not presented evidence of its allegations.

“In general, no one in Israel likes UNRWA’s mandate — and the more dogmatic they are, the more they want UNRWA to be eliminated,” said Lazzarini.

Israel has been systematically targeting UNRWA for years, persisting in undermining its mission, calling for ending the definition of Palestinian refugees that includes descendants of refugees.

Israel opposes the Palestinian right of return, which is enshrined in UN Resolution 194.

In 1948, following the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine, Israel expelled approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. 

The Israeli allegations that surfaced on 26 January have led 15 donor countries to withdraw their funding to the UNRWA, a move that Lazzarini said could force UNRWA to end lifesaving assistance and operations in the Gaza Strip by the end of February.

The decision by several countries to suspend funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees following Israeli allegations will affect its ability to fulfill its crucial role in Gaza and the region.

The suspension of funding raises concerns about the agency’s ability to fulfil its crucial role amid existing funding shortages exacerbated by the rising number of Palestinian refugees.

According to UN data, the agency assists approximately six million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Gaza. Its operations heavily rely on voluntary donations from major contributors such as the US, the EU, and others.

UNRWA stands as the sole guarantor of the international status of Palestinian refugees, given the absence of other relevant international organizations in refugee affairs.

“These shocking allegations come as more than 2 million people in Gaza depend on lifesaving assistance that the agency has been providing since the war began,” Lazzarini said last month.

“Anyone who betrays the fundamental values of the United Nations also betrays those whom we serve in Gaza, across the region and elsewhere around the world,” he added.

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