Israeli PM says civilians can leave crowded Rafah before invasion

AFP , Sunday 17 Mar 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Sunday that civilians crammed into the southern Gaza Strip would be able to leave before troops enter in pursuit of Hamas fighters.

Benjamin Netanyahu with Olaf Scholz
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their meeting in Jerusalem. Scholz s visit came the same day Israeli officials were set to meet to discuss the mandate of a negotiations team expected to participate in a new round of talks in Qatar aimed at securing a new truce in the Gaza Strip. AFP


His comments, alongside visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, follow international fears over the fate of the roughly 1.5 million people who have sought refuge in Rafah, most of them displaced from Gaza's war.

The office of the right-wing premier, whose security and war cabinets were to discuss the latest international efforts towards a truce deal, had on Friday said he approved the military's plan for an operation in Rafah as well as "the evacuation of the population".

"Our goal in eliminating the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah goes hand-in-hand with enabling the civilian population to leave Rafah. It's not something that we will do while keeping the population locked in place," Netanyahu said at a press appearance with Scholz.

As others have done, Scholz raised the question:

"How should more than 1.5 million people be protected? Where should they go?"

The United States, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military assistance, has said it wants a "clear and implementable plan" to ensure civilians are "out of harm's way".

- 'In the name of humanity' -

Before meeting Scholz, Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting that "no amount of international pressure will stop us from realising all the goals of the war", and that to do this, "we will also operate in Rafah".

Israel has repeatedly threatened a ground offensive against Hamas in Rafah, where people shelter in tents crammed up against the Egyptian border.

UN World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged against a military operation there, "in the name of humanity".

Tedros said "this humanitarian catastrophe must not be allowed to worsen".

Netanyahu leads a coalition of religious and ultra-nationalist parties. His failure to bring home the captives taken by Hamas during 7 Oct. operatiion which started the war has led to mounting protests within his country as well as domestic calls for early elections.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel since then has carried out a relentless bombardment and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip which has killed at least 31,645 people in Gaza, 70% of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

International envoys were planning to meet in Qatar soon to revive stalled talks for a ceasefire and captive release deal.

Palestinian resistance seized about 250 Israeli and foreign captives during the October 7 operation. Dozens were released during a week-long truce in November, and Israel believes about 130 remain in Gaza including 32 presumed dead.

A Hamas proposal calls for an Israeli withdrawal from "all cities and populated areas" in Gaza during a six-week truce and for more humanitarian aid, according to an official from the Palestinian group.

- 'Security responsibility' -

Israel plans to attend the talks, with cabinet members due to "decide on the mandate" of their delegation before its departure, Netanyahu's office said, without giving a date for when they would leave.

In Jerusalem, Scholz called for "a captive deal with a longer-lasting ceasefire", and appealed for a "negotiated two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has drawn condemnation from the United Nations and defied the United States by rejecting calls for a Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister said on Sunday that he would not accept a peace deal that weakens Israel and leaves it unable to defend itself against hostile neighbours.

Netanyahu also reiterated his position that "Israel has to have the necessary security responsibility" in Gaza.

There was no letup in the fighting, and at least 92 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, the health ministry said on Sunday.

The dead included 12 members of the same family whose house was hit in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza.

- 'She's dead' -

Palestinian girl Leen Thabit, retrieving a white dress from under the rubble of their flattened house, cried as she told AFP her cousin was killed in the strike.

"She's dead. Only her dress is left," Thabit said.

"What do they want from us?"

Shelling and clashes were reported in south Gaza's main city of Khan Yunis as well as elsewhere, and the Israeli army said its forces had killed "approximately 18 terrorists" in central Gaza since Saturday.

More than five months of war and an Israeli siege have led to dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza, where the United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine for the coastal territory's 2.4 million people.

Humanitarians have cited Israeli restrictions as among the obstacles they face in reaching the needy. Israel has blamed shortages on the Palestinian side, specifically a lack of capacity to distribute aid once it gets in.

Facing difficulty on the ground, donors have turned to the air and sea.

A second ship was due to depart from Cyprus along a new maritime corridor to bring food and relief goods, officials of the Mediterranean nation said.

Jordan on Sunday announced the latest aid airdrop over northern Gaza together with aircraft from the United States, Egypt and Germany -- which announced Saturday it had parachuted aid into Gaza for the first time.

In Rafah, the situation has only grown worse, said medical staff at a clinic run by Palestinian volunteers.

Samar Gregea, a physician herself uprooted from Gaza City in the north, said medicine is in short supply, and "all children" are suffering from malnutrition, with a spike in hepatitis A cases.

"Children require foods high in sugars, like dates, which are currently unavailable," Gregea said.

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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