Israel begins assault on Gaza's Rafah amid crucial ceasefire talks

Army says it will operate with extreme force in southern city

Palestinians start fleeing Rafah as Israeli assault begins

Palestinians start fleeing Rafah as Israeli assault begins
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Israel on Monday began an assault on Rafah despite warnings of high civilian casualties in the southern city, pushing the ceasefire talks with Hamas closer to the brink of total collapse as they reached a critical stage.

The Israeli army ordered Palestinian civilians in several parts of eastern Rafah to leave as its troops moved into parts of the city where hundreds of thousands have taken refuge and are living in makeshift tents.

The military issued an “urgent appeal” ordering residents and displaced Palestinians in the eastern Al Salam, Al Geneina, Tabet Ziraa, and Al Byouk districts and other areas to “immediately evacuate” and head towards Al Mawasi, a coastal area west of the city.

The army will act “with extreme force” against militants in the area, its Arabic spokesman Avichay Adree said on X.

The Kan public broadcaster said forces “are operating in the eastern neighbourhoods of the southern city close to the border”. Israeli media reports suggested that about 100,000 people are affected by the current military order and that evacuating civilians could take several weeks.

More than a million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter in Rafah where overnight strikes killed at least 26 people, according to Palestinian reports. The civil defence said it was dealing with “multiple attacks” on inhabited and uninhabited homes.

Strikes were later reported across north and central Gaza, including Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun and the Nuseirat refugee camp.

The UN, the US and other countries have repeatedly warned against an Israeli assault on Rafah, saying an operation there would cause a “bloodbath” and unprecedented suffering for the civilian population.

Israel has rebuffed such warnings, saying it would invade Rafah to “eradicate” Hamas and secure the release of hostages still held in Gaza. The army redeployed reserve troops to Gaza in late April ahead of the assault.

Crucial moment

The assault began as ceasefire talks entered a critical phase and both sides were closer to a deal that would pause the war, free Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees, and pave the way for an end to the conflict.

Hamas negotiators returned to Doha from Cairo on Sunday without any signs of a breakthrough on an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire, with the main hurdle to finalising the deal lying in Israel's reluctance to commit to ending the war, sources told The National.

The militant group is insisting on a permanent ceasefire and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, demands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again rejected on Sunday as his right-wing allies called for an immediate assault on Rafah despite families of hostages urging the government to accept the truce deal.

Both sides have appeared amenable to other points of the deal, which includes a multi-stage exchange of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians detained by Israel, and the safe return of Gazans displaced from their homes during nearly seven months of war.

“Talks in Cairo to reach an agreement collide with Israeli contradictions. This is what's preventing a deal,” a Palestinian political source told The National on Monday.

“Rafah's operation is a way to put pressure on the talks, Hamas, and the mediators. It's also maybe the best way for Benjamin Netanyahu to torpedo the talks which could lead to a permanent ceasefire that would add misery to his disgraced political career,” the source said.

“Rafah's invasion will not change the nature of the war and will not provide Israel with the image of victory it wants. It will cause a massive humanitarian catastrophe.”

For Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow of the Mena Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, Israel’s incursion into Rafah could be an attempt to pressure Hamas into the deal tabled last week. There is also additional pressure on Mr Netanyahu from Israel’s far right to invade Rafah regardless of the outcome.

“It could be brinkmanship," Mr Mekelberg said. "They’re sending a signal to Hamas that Israel will invade Rafah ... if Hamas don’t agree with the conditions they put to them, they will invade."

He added the offensive in Rafah, and the effect that could have on displaced Palestinians, was threatening to Israel’s relations with the Arab states. “If hundreds of thousands move into the Sinai, 50 years later they might still be there."

CIA director in Doha before Israel

On Monday, relatives of Israeli hostages protested outside the homes of politicians, while Mr Netanyahu was heckled during a speech marking Holocaust Memorial Day at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.

“If my son Matan pays for the Rafah adventure with his life, Matan's blood will be on your hands,” Haaretz quoted Einav Zangauker as shouting outside the home of Aryeh Deri, leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

“Gather a press conference today and tell the public the truth – what really happened this last Saturday, why you don't want to bring the hostages home,” she added.

In one video from Yad Vashem, a man could be heard saying: “How many signs does it take for a prime minister to go home?".

According to sources close to the negotiations, CIA director William Burns is expected to meet Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman in Doha on Monday to “try to salvage” the talks from collapsing, before travelling to Israel.

However, a UN source said the prospect of a negotiation breakthrough was “not high”, with part of the blame resting on Hamas’s refusal to accept the deal.

The talks were moot for now, the source said, though “there is always a way to get back to the table. “The Palestinian delegation couldn’t understand that this is not a game."

Gaza is not equipped to deal with the humanitarian repercussions of an offensive in Rafah.

“Humanitarian co-operation is going through a disastrous phase. We’re going after the events, we’re not in control, not in the driving seat,” the UN source said.

“Last week we barely made it to feed 300,000 people in the north with all crossings open. How will we do it with 2 million people?”

Humanitarian zone?

Israel's army said posters, text messages, phone calls, and media announcements would be used to “encourage the gradual movement of civilians in the specified areas”.

It added that the “humanitarian zone” in Al Mawasi had been expanded, with field hospitals established and increased relief sent to the area.

The military “will continue pursuing Hamas everywhere in Gaza until all the hostages that they’re holding in captivity are back home,” it said on X.

Several attacks have been reported on Al Mawasi despite it being declared a safe zone by the Israeli army.

In March, two international organisations called for an independent investigation into a strike on a residential compound hosting its employees and medical teams in Al Mawasi.

Hamas is believed to be holding about 130 hostages, including the remains of about 30 who had died since they were taken during the attack on southern Israel on October 7. It released about 100 of them during a week-long truce in late November. It wants to exchange the remaining hostages for hundreds of Palestinians detained in Israel.

Israel responded to the October attack with a bombing campaign and ground operations that have killed more than 34,600 Palestinians and injured twice as many. It has also displaced about 80 per cent of the territory’s 2.3 million residents and created a humanitarian crisis, including widespread hunger.

The UN's World Food Programme has warned that a “full-blown famine” is now under way in northern Gaza, and is spreading to the south.

The assault on Rafah comes hours after four Israeli soldiers were killed in a rocket attack, claimed by Hamas, on the Karam Abu Salem border crossing, resulting in the closure of the crucial route for aid deliveries into Gaza. Eight others were wounded in the attack.

Updated: May 07, 2024, 12:46 PM