UN rights chief says prospect of full Israeli incursion into Rafah is 'terrifying'

Volker Turk says his office has repeatedly warned against actions that violate the laws of war

Smoke rises following Israeli air strike during a military operation in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. EPA
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The UN's human rights chief said on Monday that a full Israeli military incursion into Rafah risked killing and injuring an “extremely high” number of people, describing the prospect of such an operation as “terrifying”.

Volker Turk called for the international community and those with influence “to restrain rather than enable” Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to send ground troops into the city to eliminate the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the enclave.

“A potential full-fledged military incursion into Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians are packed against the Egyptian border with nowhere further to flee, is terrifying, given the prospect that an extremely high number of civilians, again mostly children and women, will likely be killed and injured,” Mr Turk said in a statement.

“Sadly, given the carnage wrought so far in Gaza it is wholly imaginable what would lie ahead in Rafah,”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell meanwhile on Monday urged allies of Israel, primarily Washington, to stop sending it weapons as “too many people” are being killed in Gaza.

Britain urged Israel to agree to a truce to free its hostages rather than attack Rafah.

In an interview on Sunday with ABC News, Mr Netanyahu said the goal of destroying Hamas cannot be achieved if Hamas-affiliated brigades are allowed to remain in the city.

Mr Netanyahu also said Israel has killed more than 12,000 Hamas militants and taken out three quarters of its battalions. He has said four battalions remain in Rafah.

“You didn't have to kill every last ISIS terrorist, but you made sure that that ISIS was finished as a military force. You have to dismantle Hamas, a military force, it controls territory … we shouldn't stop,” he said.

The Gaza Health Ministry said that since the start of the war, at least 28,340 people have been killed, many of them children.

“The world must not allow this to happen,” Mr Turk said. “The prospect of such an operation into Rafah, as circumstances stand, risks further atrocity crimes.”

Mr Turk stressed that his office has repeatedly warned against actions that violate the laws of war.

“Beyond the pain and suffering of the bombs and bullets, this incursion into Rafah may also mean the end of the meagre humanitarian aid that has been entering and distributed with huge implications for all of Gaza, including the hundreds of thousands at grave risk of starvation and famine in the north,” he said.

The UN human rights chief urged Israel to comply with the legally binding orders issued by the International Court of Justice, warning that for those who defy international law, “accountability” follows.

He also called for an immediate ceasefire and for all remaining hostages to be released.

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Updated: February 13, 2024, 6:22 AM