Netanyahu greenlights plan to evacuate Palestinians ahead of attack on Rafah - as it happened

Ahram Online , Friday 15 Mar 2024

On the 161st day of the Israeli war on Gaza, Israel killed at least 20 Palestinians were killed and 155 injured while awaiting essential aid. With the looming threat of famine heightening humanitarian concerns, Hamas proposes a new deal and Washington advocates for a UN resolution on immediate ceasefire.

A displaced Palestinian boy sits along with his belongings amid the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Hamad area, west of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP


19:40 Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and US President Joe Biden have agreed on the need for a ceasefire "as soon as possible" in Gaza and a two-state solution for Palestinians during talks in Washington on Friday.

Ireland's prime minister, or Taoiseach, as he's called in the Irish language, was direct with Biden saying the need for a ceasefire was high.

"You'll know my view that we need to have a cease-fire as soon as possible to get food and medicine in," Varadkar told Biden, who interjected to say that he agreed.

"We need to talk about how we can make that happen and move towards a two-state solution which I think is the only way we'll have lasting peace and security," he added.

Varadkar has repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, often citing Ireland's own history with imperialism and occupation.

His position goes further than that of Biden, who considers himself the most Irish of recent US leaders. who only talks about a temporary ceasefire to free captives and ease the humanitarian crisis for Palestinian civilians.

19:29 The Israeli occupation forces prevented Palestine Red Crescent ambulance teams and volunteers from entering the courtyards of Al-Aqsa Mosque to provide humanitarian and emergency services to worshippers on the first Friday of Ramadan without justification, the PRCS said.

The PRCS said it "considers this prevention a serious precedent leading to the prevention of ambulance teams belonging to PRCS from operating within East Jerusalem, which according to all international agreements is part of the occupied Palestinian territory."

Therefore, PRCS is responsible for providing emergency and humanitarian services within the geographic scope of occupied Jerusalem.



19:10 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington was working "intensively" with its partners "to bridge the remaining gaps" for a deal to free captives and secure a ceasefire in Gaza.

"Yes, there has been a counter-proposal put forward by Hamas. I obviously can't get into the details of what that involves, but what I can tell you is that we're working intensively with Israel, with Qatar, with Egypt, to bridge the remaining gaps and to try to reach an agreement," Blinken said during a visit to Vienna.

Hamas has proposed a new six-week truce in Gaza and an exchange of several dozen Israeli captives for Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Israel would send a delegation to Doha for another round of talks.

"I think it reflects the sense both of possibility and urgency to get an agreement, to get a ceasefire, to get the hostages back, to get even more humanitarian assistance in," Blinken said about Israel's move.

Israel has so far refused to withdraw from Gaza, and has boycotted the late round of talks in Cairo.

Earlier he said: "The United States needs to see a clear and implementable plan for Rafah, including to get civilians out of harm's way."  

Speaking of Netanyahu's approval of a military plan for an operation in Rafah, where most of war-battered Gaza's population has sought refuge, Blinken said that the US has not yet seen such a plan for a military operation in Rafah.

18:43 Top UN judges will start listening to submissions next month in the case filed by Nicaragua accusing Berlin of facilitating "genocide" in Gaza because of the US support for Israel, officials said Friday.

Two weeks ago Nicaragua filed a case against Germany before the International Court of Justice, saying Berlin was "facilitating the commission of genocide and... failed in its obligation to do everything possible to prevent the commission of genocide," in Gaza.

This included Berlin's suspension of funding of the UN Palestinian refugee agency.

The Hague-based ICJ said it will hold hearings on 8 and 9 April 8 for both countries to make submissions.

"The hearings will be devoted to the request for the indication of provisional measures contained in Nicaragua's Application," the ICJ said in a statement.

Managua has asked the court to take a swift interim stance against Germany before the case was given an in-depth study by judges.

The lodging of the case follows the ICJ saying on 26 January that Israel must do everything to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and take "immediate" measures for aid provisions.

That interim order was given as the court moves to weigh in full a case lodged in December by South Africa affirming that Israel was engaged in genocide in Gaza.



17:25 "The United States needs to see a clear and implementable plan for Rafah, including to get civilians out of harm's way," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday. 

Blinken informed reporters during a visit to Austria that the US has not yet seen such a plan for a military operation in Rafah.

17:10 "At least one staff member was killed and 22 others were injured when Israel targeted a food distribution centre in Rafah belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East," the UNRWA said.

The distribution centre in eastern Rafah was hit despite its coordinates having been shared with Israel’s military, according to Director-General Philippe Lazzarini, who is calling for an independent investigation into the attack.

“Today’s attack on one of the very few remaining UNRWA distribution centres in the Gaza Strip comes as food supplies are running out, hunger is widespread and, in some areas, turning into famine," Lazzarini said in a statement.

"Every day, we share the coordinates of all our facilities across the Gaza Strip with parties to the conflict. The Israeli Army received the coordinates including of this facility yesterday."

Video of the distribution centre shows blood on the floors and on aid items, which include diapers for babies.

"Look, what is this?" a UNRWA employee told NBC News as he pointed to the damage and blood. "We take this all to the elderly and children. What is this?"

"This is wrong."

The UNRWA added that "Intense Israeli bombardment from the air, land and sea continued across much of the Gaza Strip, resulting in further civilian casualties, displacement and destruction of civilian infrastructure.  Israeli forces airstrikes continue also in heavily populated Rafah in southern Gaza." 

"Access to people in Gaza City and Northern Gaza remains insufficient," it said. According to OCHA, only 25 per cent of aid missions planned to the North to date have been facilitated by the Israeli Authorities.   



17:00 Australia will lift its suspension on funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the country's foreign minister said in a statement.

“Only UNRWA has the infrastructure to receive and distribute aid on the scale needed right now in Gaza,” Penny Wong said.  The 6 million Australian dollars ($3.9 million) of pause funding will be disbursed immediately, she added. Some 13,000 people at UNRWA provide healthcare, education, and humanitarian aid to more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, most of whom are now displaced from their homes by Israel’s six-month and ongoing bombardment and siege. 

The statement also mentioned that the suspended funding of 6 million Australian dollars ($3.9 million) would be disbursed immediately.

This decision comes after a two-month suspension of funding, initiated by Australia and other countries, including the US, following Israel's claims that some UNRWA employees were involved in the Hamas Al-Aqsa Flood operation.

However, Israel did not provide substantial evidence for these allegations, leading countries to reverse their decisions.

The European Union, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada have also announced their plans to resume funding for UNRWA.



Israel is waging a concerted campaign aimed at destroying UNRWA, as it opposes the “right of return” for the refugees, expelled from their homeland by the Israelis in 1948, and their descendants.

"It is a long-term political goal because it is believed that if the aid agency is abolished, the status of the Palestinian refugees will be resolved once and for all — and with it, the right of return. There is a much larger political goal behind this," Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the agency said.

16:20 Here are some photos coming from the Palestinian territories today.

Palestinians perform the first Friday noon prayer of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in front of the ruins of Al-Farouq Mosque.

Palestinians transport the body of a relative killed in Israeli bombardment from the morgue of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.

Palestinian children fetch water in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Muslim devotees offer the first Friday noon prayers of the holy fasting month of Ramadan against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.​

Muslim devotees leave the Al-Aqsa mosque after offering the first Friday noon prayers of  Ramadan in occupied Jerusalem


It was difficult Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque.

Under a heavy police presence, tens of thousands of Muslims attended the first Friday prayers of Ramadan in the occupied Old City.

Old men leaning on canes, veiled women and smartly dressed children flowed through the gates of Jerusalem, though many younger men were turned away by police conducting security checks.

"It's random. They decide who they let in, who they don't let in, and you don't know why," said Amjad Ghalib, a 44-year-old carpenter from the Mount of Olives who described relief at being granted access.

"I have to be honest, we are afraid," he said, a prayer mat resting on his shoulder.

​Only men aged 55 and over and women older than 50 would be allowed to enter the mosque compound from the territory, government spokesperson Ofir Gendelman said.

The site has been a flashpoint for violence during the fasting month of Ramadan in past years, and thousands of police officers were deployed on Friday, some of them heavily armed.

"There are so many soldiers. Wherever you go, you find them. They make it difficult," said Ezzat Khouis, a 75-year-old tour guide, referring to the police.

Israel's violence in the occupied West Bank has flared to levels unseen in nearly two decades.

Israeli troops and terrorist settlers have killed at least 430 Palestinians in the West Bank since the war on Gaza began.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has said that, despite the restrictions, worshippers would be allowed to enter the mosque "in similar numbers" to past years.

But those assurances meant little to some young men, who were denied entry to the Old City on Friday.

"It's unfair. When they refuse to let in young boys, it hurts me very, very much," says Fida Absiya, who stood at the entrance to the Old City.

Other West Bank worshippers were unable to reach Jerusalem, including Umm al-Abd who attempted to cross at the Qalandia checkpoint to its north.

"In the past, I used to go (to Al-Aqsa) every Friday and I never missed (the prayers)", the 50-year-old woman said.

"Today they did not allow me to enter. I am sad. I will be sad all day."

15:40 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved Friday a plan of the Israeli army for operation in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, said Netanyahu's office.

“The army is making operational preparations and is getting ready for the evacuation of civilians,” a statement from his office read.

Netanyahu also rejected Hamas's proposal for a ceasefire, which is described as "unrealistic."

However, an Israeli delegation will travel to Qatar to discuss their position.

15:30 The Spanish aid ship Open Arms has begun unloading cargo after reaching the shoreline of central Gaza, according to a journalist on the ground working for CNN.

Workers have begun loading the 200 tons of food aid on smaller boats off the shore of the Gaza City neighbourhood of Sheikh Ajleen. 

The delivery comes as northern Gaza is on the brink of famine as aid deliveries fall short, according to the head of the UN World Food Programme.

The number of children dying of malnutrition and dehydration in the area is rising.



14:05 President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for international recognition of Palestine as a full member state in the United Nations.

"If this is to be achieved, our consolation for the great tragedy we have experienced for five months would be the recognition of the Palestinian state within the borders of June 1967 and its capital East Jerusalem," he said in a speech at the Egyptian Police Academy.

Egypt is seeking to reach a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, increase the entry of aid, and ensure the return of the displaced in the south of the Strip to the north, he noted.

El-Sisi added that the airdrop of aid to Gaza "does not meet the required humanitarian needs," reiterating Egypt's readiness to deliver any amount of this aid through the Rafah crossing.

"We have participated in an initiative to airdrop aid with several countries, but all these numbers do not meet the required amount... We need to deliver thousands of tons daily," he added.

During his speech, he denounced the ongoing Israeli killing of Palestinians while warning of the danger of obstructing the entry of aid into the Strip and using food as a weapon against innocent civilians in the territory.

He also warned of the danger of invading the Palestinian city of Rafah, at the border with Egypt. 

14:00 A diplomatic source told CNN that mediation efforts on a ceasefire in Gaza are moving in a positive direction “but are not there yet.”

The source also said that fresh reporting about the possible shape of a ceasefire deal in Gaza “describes an agreement that Hamas would be prepared to sign up to.”

The source was referring to a Reuters report early this morning that said that Hamas had presented a Gaza ceasefire proposal to mediators in which the first stage would include the release of 100 Palestinian prisoners serving life sentences and the release of Israeli "female recruits” held in Gaza, according to Reuters.

CNN reported late Thursday that Hamas had sent a new response to Egyptian and Qatari mediators in ongoing contacts over a ceasefire and captive release. 

A US official told CNN that the Biden administration currently feels “cautiously optimistic” about the direction that the talks are going. But they declined to share any further details.

13:37 A ship carrying 200 tons of aid approached the coast of Gaza on a mission to inaugurate a sea route from Cyprus to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory.

The ship, operated by the Spanish aid group Open Arms, left Cyprus on Tuesday towing a barge laden with food sent by the charity World Central Kitchen.

It could be seen off Gaza's coast Friday morning.

However, aid groups said the airdrops and sea shipments are far less efficient ways of delivering the massive amounts of aid needed in Gaza.

Instead, the groups have called on Israel to guarantee safe corridors for truck convoys after land deliveries became nearly impossible because of Israel's military restrictions, ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of order after the Gaza police force largely vanished from the streets.

The daily number of supply trucks entering Gaza since the war began has been far below the 500 that entered before 7 October.

The situation had gotten so grave, that some Gazans resorted to eating grass and animal feed, while others died from starvation. 

13:35 "The destruction across the Gaza Strip has created nearly 23 million tons of debris," the UNRWA said.

"It will take years to clear the rubble and unexploded ordnance. Houses, schools, clinics and other civilian infrastructure have been impacted."

"The lives of over 2 million people have been devastated," the UN agency added.



13:12 The longer the war in Gaza goes on and the Houthis keep targetting ships in the Red Sea the greater the risk that Yemen could be propelled back into war, the UN special envoy for Yemen warned late on Thursday.

Hans Grundberg told the UN Security Council it has been impossible to shield his promising efforts to restore peace to Yemen because the reality is, “what happens regionally impacts Yemen – and what happens in Yemen can impact the region.”

Since November, the Houthis have targeted ships in the Red Sea to demand a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza.

Fighting has decreased markedly in Yemen since a truce in April 2022, but there are still hotspots in the country.

But with the ongoing Gaza War, he warned the council that “the longer the escalatory environment continues, the more challenging Yemen’s mediation space will become.”

“With more interests at play, the parties to the conflict in Yemen are more likely to shift calculations and alter their negotiation agendas,” he said.

“In a worst-case scenario, the parties could decide to engage in risky military adventurism that propels Yemen back into a new cycle of war.”

13:10 A suspected attack by Yemen's Houthis struck a ship in the Red Sea, off the port city of Hodeida early Friday, causing damage to the vessel, authorities said.

The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations Centre said the ship reported being "struck by a missile."

"The vessel has sustained some damage," the UKMTO added. It described the crew as being "safe" and said the ship was continuing on its way, suggesting the damage wasn't severe. The private security firm Ambrey also reported the attack.

The Houthis did not immediately claim the attack, though it typically takes the group hours to acknowledge their assaults.

Late on Thursday, the group leader Abdul Malik al-Huthi said the Houthis would expand their attacks to ships taking the longer route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

"We are moving, with the grace and help of God Almighty, to prevent them from crossing even through the Indian Ocean and from South Africa," he said in a speech broadcast by the Yemeni Al-Masirah TV channel.

"We have begun implementing our related operations," he added.

Twelve "targeting operations" using 58 missiles were carried out against commercial and military ships this week in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, the Houthi leader said.

"Neither the Americans nor the British have any choice at all, except to stop the aggression against Gaza and stop starving the people in Gaza," he added.



13:05 Palestine has submitted a letter to the United Nations Security Council, calling for immediate international action to halt "Israel's genocidal war" against the Palestinian people.

The letter, presented by Palestine's observer mission to the UN, emphasizes the urgent need for a ceasefire to protect millions of Palestinian children, women, and men who are at risk.

The letter appeals to the international community to take decisive action to protect Palestinian lives, highlighting the gravity of the situation and the irreparable harm being inflicted.

It emphasizes that a ceasefire is the only way to end the bloodshed and prevent further harm to civilians.

Citing alarming figures, the letter states that Israel has killed 31,341 Palestinian children, women, and men and injured over 73,000 in Gaza.

In addition, 418 Palestinians have been killed and 5,000 injured in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The letter condemns the killing, ethnic cleansing, colonization, and impunity, and stresses the need for accountability and sanctions on the occupying power to halt the alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Palestinian people.

The appeal emphasizes the importance of upholding the rule of law, regional and international peace, and security. 



12:25 The United States has drafted a fresh resolution to put to the UN Security Council late Thursday, that would support international efforts to secure “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” in the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza. 

It proposes that the Security Council “unequivocally supports international diplomatic efforts to establish an immediate and sustained ceasefire as part of a deal that releases the captives, and that allows the basis for a more durable peace to alleviate humanitarian suffering." 

The draft expresses concern about any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah in southern Gaza and says that an initial truce, if and when agreed, should “lay the foundation for a sustainable ceasefire.” 

The initial draft said Israel’s planned major ground offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah “should not proceed under current circumstances.”

That language disappeared in the final draft. Instead, in an introductory paragraph, the council would emphasize its concern that a ground offensive into Rafah “would result in further harm to civilians and their further displacement, potentially into neighbouring countries, and would have serious implications for regional peace and security.”

Washington has blocked so far all three resolutions at the UNSC calling for a ceasefire. 

The American draft put “in blue”  — meaning it is in a form that can be voted on — is the fifth version of the text and makes some key changes.

The US circulated the initial draft on 19 February, a day before it vetoed a widely supported Arab-backed resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in the war in the embattled Gaza Strip, saying it would interfere with negotiations on a deal to free the hostages.

The new draft remains subject to potential modifications, and no voting schedule has been announced.

The text notes intensified diplomatic efforts by Egypt and Qatar, aimed at releasing the captives, increasing the provision and distribution of humanitarian aid, and alleviating the suffering of civilians in Gaza through an agreement on an immediate ceasefire of roughly six weeks.

12:10 A Hamas official said that the resistance group has proposed a new cease-fire deal.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan that the group has presented a new plan along similar lines to its previous demands, without providing further details.

Hamas has presented a proposal to mediators that includes the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for freedom for Palestinian prisoners, 100 of whom are serving life sentences, according to a proposal seen by Reuters.

Hamas said the initial release of Israelis would include women, children, elderly and ill hostages in return for the release of 700-1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, according to the proposal.
The release of Israeli "female recruits" is included.

International mediators had hoped to broker a six-week cease-fire before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, which began earlier this week, but talks stalled with no agreement in sight.

The proposed deal called for Hamas to release dozens of captives, Israel to free Palestinian detainees it is holding, and a major influx of aid into Gaza, but Israel has boycotted the negotiations and rejected the deal sponsored by Egypt, Qatar and the United States.

Hamas has expressed its desire for a permanent cease-fire, the return of displaced people, and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

12:00 Once again, Israeli forces have reportedly killed at least 20 Palestinians and injured 155 individuals who were waiting to receive essential aid.

According to the Palestinian health ministry, Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians gathered at a roundabout in Gaza City. The initial toll of 11 killed and 100 wounded has been revised upwards.

Graphic footage from the immediate aftermath of the scene filed by eyewitnesses showed multiple bodies with traumatic injuries as well as pools of blood on a street strewn with rubble and dust.

The injured victims were brought to Al-Shifa Hospital, where they were forced to lie on the floors due to the overwhelming influx of patients.

“Medical teams are unable to deal with the volume and type of injuries reaching hospitals in northern Gaza due to weak medical and human capabilities,” the ministry said.

Mohammed Ghurab, the director of emergency services at the hospital, confirmed that Israeli forces had directly fired shots at people waiting for a truck carrying food.

The Kuwaiti Roundabout in Gaza City has become known as an area where aid trucks distribute food, attracting crowds of people desperate for supplies

The site has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli attacks on Palestinians seeking humanitarian aid, since the first Israeli assault known as the 'flour massacre.'

As the United Nations warns of an imminent famine in Gaza, which has been under Israeli siege since the eruption of the war, a Spanish aid ship has sailed closer to the Gaza coast, establishing a maritime corridor from Cyprus to facilitate aid delivery.

Efforts to provide food and other aid to Gaza have intensified, including through air and sea routes, as Israel continues to impose immense restrictions on the most efficient land routes.

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