UN chief to visit Gaza border as Israel vows to go ahead with Rafah attack

AFP , Saturday 23 Mar 2024

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to visit Egypt's border with Gaza on Saturday, after Israel said it would send in troops in the nearby city of Rafah, even without US support.

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. AFP


During his visit, Guterres plans to reiterate his call for a humanitarian ceasefire, though renewed international pressure has so far failed to dissuade Israel from the planned ground offensive in Rafah, where most of Gaza's population has taken shelter.

Despite warnings that such an invasion would cause mass civilian casualties and worsen the humanitarian crisis gripping the territory, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he must press ahead with the attack.

"I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone," Netanyahu told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.

International efforts to pause the almost six months of the Israeli war on Gaza have grown increasingly desperate, with the health ministry reporting 32,070 people killed as of Friday and experts warning the entire population is teetering on the brink of famine.

The ministry reported early Saturday morning another 67 people were killed overnight, including 10 in a strike on a family home north of Gaza City.

"This is a man-made catastrophe," the head of the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) Philippe Lazzarini wrote on social media platform X. He added that a ceasefire and "flooding Gaza with food + lifesaving goods" was the only solution.

The latest bid for a Security Council resolution on an "immediate" ceasefire failed on Friday as China and Russia vetoed the American proposal, which Arab governments complained was too weak.

Diplomatic sources said that a vote on a new ceasefire text, initially planned for Saturday, would be postponed until Monday to allow for further discussions.

Meanwhile, the violence has continued, particularly around Gaza's largest hospital complex, Al-Shifa, where Israeli forces claimed on Friday to have killed more than 150 Palestinian fighters and arrested hundreds of suspects.

At a funeral for the Barbakh family in the southern city of Khan Yuins on Friday, relatives described seemingly endless losses.

"Every day we lament over a loved one," Turkiya Barbakh said. "At the beginning of the war, I lost my nephew, and now my sister, her husband, and her children. Almost the entire family has perished."

"How long are we supposed to endure this?"

On Saturday, UN chief Guterres plans to meet with aid workers on the Egyptian side of Rafah, just across the border from the Gazan city where 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge.

The city had been the subject of a disagreement between Netanyahu and Blinken in Tel Aviv on Friday.

"We have no way to defeat Hamas without getting into Rafah and eliminating the battalions that are left there," Netanyahu said.

Afterward, Blinken said an invasion of Rafah was "not the way to achieve" that aim.

"We have the same goals as Israel: the defeat of Hamas," the top American diplomat wrote on X after the meeting. "Next week I will meet again with Israeli officials in Washington to discuss a different way we can achieve this objective."

In a reflection of the increasing strain between the Biden and Netanyahu administrations, Israel announced the seizure of 800 hectares (1,980 acres) of land in the occupied West Bank on the same day as Blinken's visit.

Successive Israeli governments have sharply accelerated the expansion of settlements across the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, which are regarded as illegal under international law.

Peace Now said the land seizure announced on Friday was the biggest since the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

"You know our views on settlement expansion," Blinken said. "Anyone taking steps that make things more difficult, more challenging with time is something we have a problem with."

Blinken, on a whistlestop tour of the region to support truce talks in Qatar, also expressed disappointment Friday over the failed UN resolution.

He accused China and Russia of "cynically" using their vetoes as permanent members of the council, while Hamas expressed its "appreciation".

While diplomats sparred in New York, Israel's spy chief David Barnea headed to Qatar for truce negotiations with CIA chief William Burns and Qatari and Egyptian officials.

The mediators are aiming to secure the release of Israelis still held in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more relief supplies.


'Starvation as a method of war'

Since the start of its war on October 7, Israel has imposed a complete blockade on Gaza, heavily restricting the flow of humanitarian aid, which mainly comes in from Egypt via Rafah.

According to the UN, these tight controls have reduced aid deliveries to barely a trickle.

"Before October 7, an average of 500 to 700 trucks entered Gaza every day. Today, the average is barely 150," UNRWA chief Lazzarini said.

Dire warnings of famine are issued almost daily, and UN rights chief Volker Turk earlier this week accused Israel of conducting the conflict in a way that "may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war".

To try to alleviate the shortages, several countries have airdropped food and opened a sea corridor from Cyprus to Gaza. However, the aid is still insufficient to meet the needs of Gaza's 2.4 million inhabitants.

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