Israel PM orders troops to prepare for push into Rafah

AFP , Thursday 8 Feb 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the occupation troops to prepare to enter the overcrowded Gazan city of Rafah, even as a new round of talks aimed at securing a truce with Hamas were set to open Thursday in Cairo.

People who fled fighting in the Gaza Strip gather along an overcrowded street in Rafah in the southern part of the Palestinian territory on February 2024. AFP


Netanyahu announced the order after rejecting Hamas's response to a ceasefire proposal at the center of intense recent diplomatic efforts, though visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted on Wednesday that he still saw "space for agreement to be reached".

Concerns were mounting, meanwhile, for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have sought refuge in Rafah along the Egyptian border, with UN chief Antonio Guterres warning a military push into the city "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare".

In televised remarks Wednesday, Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in the city, claiming that "total victory" over Hamas was just months away.

Regarding the ceasefire proposal, he added: "Giving in to the bizarre demands of Hamas that we have just heard will... only invite another massacre."

Blinken, who is on yet another trip to the region to press for a truce, told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas's counter-proposal at least offered an opportunity "to pursue negotiations".

"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 said, hours after meeting Netanyahu.

More talks 

A new round of negotiations aimed at achieving "calm" in Gaza and a detainees exchange was set to open Thursday in Cairo, an Egyptian official told AFP.

Cairo was urging "both parties to show the necessary flexibility" to make a deal, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Thursday morning that another 109 people had been killed in overnight strikes.

Fears for Rafah 

As Israel prepared to press further south, fears were also growing for the displaced Palestinian civilians thronging Rafah, pressed against Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

More than half of Gaza's 2.4 million people are estimated to have sought safety in the city.

"Their living conditions are abysmal -- they lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death," UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement.

"As the war encroaches further into Rafah, I am extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of families which have endured the unthinkable in search of safety."

Blinken stopped short of calling on Israel not to move on the city, but did voice concern at the new push, saying any "military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost".

The Israeli war on Gaza has sparked a surge in retaliatory attacks across the region, largely by Iran-backed groups drawing more violent attacks not only by Israel but also by the United States and its allies.

An American air strike in Iraq on Wednesday killed a senior commander from a pro-Iran armed group who was "responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces", the US Central Command claimed.

The strike came after Washington last week launched a wave of attacks on Iraq and Syria following the killing of three American troops in Jordan.

In Lebanon, state media reported that Israeli strikes on a southern village killed one civilian and wounded two others on Wednesday.

Since October 7, the Lebanese-Israeli border has seen near-daily exchanges of fire between Israel and the Hezbollah group.


Short link: