Netanyahu has everything to lose and nothing to gain from deescalating

By Shlomo Roiter Jesner, President, Co-founder, Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Once known as Mr Security, Netanyahu has made a career out of the persona he built for himself: the self-proclaimed “King Bibi” who can save Israel. Now, he’ll do anything to ensure self-preservation, Shlomo Roiter Jesner writes.

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The statement by Israel Defence Forces Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari earlier this week took many by surprise, considering the severity of the picture he painted of the ongoing escalation on Israel’s northern border.

Warning that “Hezbollah’s increasing aggression is bringing us to the brink of what could be a wider escalation”, his statement was followed by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, not known to skimp on words, warning that the country was ready for an “all-out war” that would “change the rules of the game”.

What inspired statements as strong as these coming from Israel’s military and political leadership was the most violent week so far on the border with Lebanon — that is, since the recent escalation began following Hamas’s 7 October attack.

A similar escalation in rhetoric has been seen from Hezbollah’s side, which, for the first time in a number of days, took direct responsibility for UAV attacks near the Israeli city of Metullah.

Considering the death of the most senior Hezbollah official thus far, commander Taleb Abdullah, coupled with Hezbollah launching what has been some of its heaviest rocket barrages to date, in addition to overt threats from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to attack Israeli critical infrastructure using footage filmed by the terror organisation’s reconnaissance drones, the threat of escalation is very real.

Spats with Washington are not helping

With Amos Hochstein, US President Joe Biden’s senior aide, who has been serving as Biden’s mediator since the conflict began, visiting the region with an eye towards preventing further escalation, the question begging to be asked is what the US administration can practically do.

The state of relations between the United States and Israel is currently at an all-time low, rivalled only by the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office when Washington, in a rare move, abstained from a controversial UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to settlements.

Relations between Biden and Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu reached their own low this week when Netanyahu, in an English-language social media video, accused the Biden administration of withholding military aid to Israel, the single largest recipient of American military aid globally.

The spat led to the rare cancellation of a strategic dialogue on Iran only a day before it was meant to take place in Washington with members of the Israeli delegation, including Israel’s National Security Advisor, already en route. “This decision makes it clear that there are consequences for pulling such stunts,” a US official, referring to Netanyahu’s clip, said.

And while Washington tries to reign in Israel’s prime minister, setting demands regarding Israeli operations in Rafah and cancelling the discussed meeting, what the Biden administration is missing is that they are dealing with a man who quite literally has nothing to lose.

Mr Security’s fall from grace

Israel’s longest-serving PM, once known as Mr Security, lacks the vast public support he once had, finding himself fourth out of six Israeli politicians, with only 42% support in a poll conducted in March.

He was followed only by Israel’s hard-right leaders, Bezalel Smotritch and Itamar Ben Gvir (with 37% and 33%, respectively).

The 7 October massacre and the intelligence and military failures that will forever be associated with that day saw all preconceived notions of Netanyahu as the only one who could ensure the safety and security which Israeli citizens so desperately seek shattered.

Indeed, calls for accountability are only getting stronger. Just this week, tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of Israeli society demanded a commission of inquiry, something that Netanyahu has been blocking State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman from putting together.

Despite his 17 years in power, shockingly, not one commission of inquiry has ever been formed, making “the likelihood of an inquiry very, very low,” according to professor of public policy at Hebrew University Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan.

On a personal level, it cannot be forgotten that Netanyahu is still facing an ongoing corruption trial, which resumed this December despite the war in Gaza.

Charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three separate cases, it is obvious what Netanyahu has to gain by prolonging, if not escalating, Israel’s security situation.

In this light, only three months ago, Netanyahu’s lawyers petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to postpone testimonies “as long as there is no substantial change in the security situation in the country”.

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Vast arsenal of tools for self-preservation

With Netanyahu in a position where he exemplifies what James Baldwin called “the most dangerous creation in any society, the man who has nothing to lose”, Biden and the US must tread carefully when calling for deescalation.

Commonly known by his favourite nickname, Bibi, he has made a career out of the persona he built for himself: the self-proclaimed “King Bibi” who can save Israel.

Vilifying the US Democrats in an election year and perhaps subtly doing everything in his power to ensure an administration change are only some of the tools in his vast arsenal of self-preservation.

President Biden himself is also limited in this regard, needing to ensure the pro-Israel vote while painting a picture of someone who also cares about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Netanyahu easily takes advantage of this delicate balance, portraying every action by Washington as calling into question US’ unwavering support for the Jewish state.

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Although Hezbollah does not see a severe escalation with Israel to be in its strategic interest, it may nevertheless take advantage of Netanyahu’s desperate need for an ongoing security crisis, coupled with what it perceives to be a lull in the US-Israel relationship, to score a much-needed win on the security front.

Nasrallah is even less restrained than Netanyahu, with little regard for the future of Lebanon.

Who will shoot first?

Hezbollah will win in the eyes of the Lebanese public if it is seen as keeping Israel’s military at bay and will win the battle for hearts and minds if an escalation occurs, too.

This is due to the military losses that Israel would undoubtedly suffer, including on the home front and during an eventual reconstruction process in Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah would be responsible for the country’s destruction, it would also play an important role in its rebuilding, given the virtual non-existence of a central government in Lebanon.

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However, with recent polling in Israel showing 60% support attacking Hezbollah with full force and 36% wanting to see this in the immediate term, it is impossible to know which side the US has little to no control over will be the first to escalate.

Shlomo Roiter Jesner is President and Co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group, a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Hamas demands ‘complete halt’ to war in response to ceasefire proposal

The US says Israel supports the deal, which has been backed by the UN Security Council, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given conflicting signals.

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Hamas says it has responded to a US-backed proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza — albeit with some “amendments” to the deal — and that its priority is to bring a “complete stop” to the eight-month war that has killed more than 37,000 people.

The foreign ministries of Qatar and Egypt, who have been key mediators alongside the US, confirmed that they had received Hamas’ response and said mediators were studying it.

“We’re in receipt of this reply that Hamas delivered to Qatar and to Egypt, and we are evaluating it right now,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.

A separate Hamas spokesperson, Jihad Taha, said the response included “amendments that confirm the ceasefire, withdrawal, reconstruction and (prisoner) exchange”.

The proposal, announced by US President Joe Biden last month, calls for a three-phased plan that would begin with an initial six-week ceasefire and the release of some hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli forces would withdraw from populated areas and Palestinian civilians would be allowed to return to their homes. Hamas is still holding around 120 hostages, a third of whom are believed to be dead.

Phase one also requires the safe distribution of humanitarian assistance “at scale throughout the Gaza Strip,” which Biden said would lead to 600 trucks of aid entering Gaza every day.

At the same time, negotiations would be launched over the second phase, which is to bring “a permanent end to hostilities, in exchange for the release of all other hostages still in Gaza, and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.”

Phase three would launch “a major multi-year reconstruction plan for Gaza and the return of the remains of any deceased hostages still in Gaza to their families.”

The militant group endorsed a similar proposal last month that was rejected by Israel.

In a joint statement announcing that they had submitted their reply to Qatar and Egypt, Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad said they were ready to “deal positively to arrive at an agreement” and that their priority is to bring a “complete stop” to the war.

A senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television that the group had “submitted some remarks on the proposal to the mediators,” without elaborating.

While supporting the broad outlines of the deal, Hamas officials have expressed wariness about the prospect that Israel will implement its terms, particularly provisions for an eventual permanent end to the fighting and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in return for the release of all hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October 2023.

The US says Israel has accepted the proposal, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given conflicting signals, saying his government will not stop its campaign until Hamas is destroyed.

The transition from the first to the second phase appears to be a sticking point. Hamas wants assurances that Israel will not resume the war, and Israel wants to ensure that protracted negotiations over the second phase do not prolong the ceasefire indefinitely while leaving hostages in captivity.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in the region this week trying to push through the UN Security Council-backed deal, which calls for a six-week ceasefire that would eventually become permanent.

On Tuesday, he continued to pressure Hamas toward accepting the proposal, saying that the UN Security Council’s vote in its favour made it “as clear as it possibly could be” that the world supports the plan.

“Everyone’s vote is in, except for one vote, and that’s Hamas,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv after meeting with Israeli officials.

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He said Netanyahu had reaffirmed his commitment to the proposal when they met late Monday.

Later on Tuesday, Blinken attended a Gaza aid conference in Jordan, where he announced over $400 million (€370 million) in additional aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the wider region, bringing the total US assistance sent over the past eight months to more than $674 million (€622 million).

UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the gathering that the amount of aid flowing to the UN in Gaza for distribution has plummeted by two-thirds since Israel launched an offensive in the territory’s southern city of Rafah in early May.

Guterres called for all border crossings to be opened, saying, “the speed and scale of the carnage and killing in Gaza” is beyond anything he has since he took the helm of the UN in 2017.

‘Israel and Hamas may have committed war crimes’

In a separate development, the UN human rights office said Israeli forces and Palestinian militants may have committed war crimes during the deadly Israeli raid that rescued four hostages over the weekend. At least 274 Palestinians were killed in the operation, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

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On Monday, the UN Security Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the proposal, with 14 of the 15 members voting in favour and Russia abstaining. The resolution calls on Israel and Hamas “to fully implement its terms without delay and without condition.”

Biden has presented the deal as an Israeli proposal, but Netanyahu has publicly disputed key aspects of it, saying there were parts left out by Biden. The conflicting signals appear to reflect Netanyahu’s political dilemma. His far-right coalition allies have rejected the proposal and have threatened to bring down his government if he ends the war without destroying Hamas.

A lasting ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza would likely allow Hamas to retain control of the territory and rebuild its military capabilities.

But Netanyahu is also under mounting pressure to accept a deal to bring the hostages back. Thousands of Israelis, including families of the hostages, have demonstrated in favour of the US-backed plan.

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ICC seeks arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for war crimes in Palestine; charges Hamas chief for Oct. 7 attack

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said May 20 he is seeking arrest warrants for leaders of Israel and Hamas, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over actions taken during their seven-month war.

Karim Khan said that he believes Mr. Netanyahu, his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and three Hamas leaders — Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh — are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

A panel of three judges will consider the prosecutor’s evidence and determine whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed.

Israel is not a member of the court, so even if the arrest warrants are issued, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. But Mr. Khan’s announcement deepens Israel’s isolation as it presses ahead in Gaza, and the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the chief prosecutor’s decision to seek arrest warrants against Israel’s leaders is “a historic disgrace that will be remembered forever.”

He said he would form a special committee to fight back against any such action and would work with world leaders to ensure that any such warrants are not enforced on Israel’s leaders.

Also read: A brief history of starvation as a ‘war crime’ | Explained

The Hamas militant group denounced the ICC prosecutor’s request to seek the arrests of its leaders.

Benny Gantz, a former military chief and member of Israel’s War Cabinet with Netanyahu and Gallant, harshly criticized Khan’s announcement, saying Israel fights with “one of the strictest” moral codes, respects international law and has a robust judiciary capable of investigating itself.

“The State of Israel is waging one of the just wars fought in modern history following a reprehensible massacre perpetrated by terrorist Hamas on the 7th of October,” he said. “The prosecutor’s position to apply for arrest warrants is in itself a crime of historic proportion to be remembered for generations.

Other Israeli leaders, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, also condemned the ICC prosecutor.

In a statement, Hamas accused the prosecutor of trying to “equate the victim with the executioner.” It said it has the right to resist Israeli occupation, including “armed resistance.”

It also criticized the court for seeking the arrests of only two Israeli leaders and said it should seek warrants for other Israeli leaders.

Both Sinwar and Deif are believed to be hiding in Gaza as Israel tries to hunt them down. But Haniyeh, the supreme leader of the Islamic militant group, is based in Qatar and frequently travels across the region.

The latest war between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7, when militants from Gaza crossed into Israel and killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage.

The Israeli offensive has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, at least half of them women and children, according to the latest estimates by Gaza health officials. The Israeli offensive has also triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80% of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to U.N. officials.

Speaking of the Israeli actions, Khan said in a statement that “the effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known. … They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women.”

The United Nations and other aid agencies have repeatedly accused Israel of hindering aid deliveries throughout the war. Israel denies this, saying there are no restrictions on aid entering Gaza and accusing the United Nations of failing to distribute aid. The U.N. says aid workers have repeatedly come under Israeli fire, and also says ongoing fighting and a security vacuum have impeded deliveries.

Of the Hamas actions on Oct. 7, Khan, who visited the region in December, said that he saw for himself “the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today. Speaking with survivors, I heard how the love within a family, the deepest bonds between a parent and a child, were contorted to inflict unfathomable pain through calculated cruelty and extreme callousness. These acts demand accountability.”

After a brief period of international support for its war, Israel has faced increasing criticism as the war has dragged on and the death toll has climbed.

Israel is also facing a South African case in the International Court of Justice, the U.N.’s top court, accusing Israel of genocide. Israel denies those charges.

The ICC was established in 2002 as the permanent court of last resort to prosecute individuals responsible for the world’s most heinous atrocities — war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression.

The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the ICC, but the court is independent.

Dozens of countries don’t accept the court’s jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and other crimes. They include Israel, the United States, Russia and China.

The ICC becomes involved when nations are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes on their territory. Israel argues it has a functioning court system.

The ICC accepted “The State of Palestine” as a member in 2015, a year after the Palestinians accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

The court’s chief prosecutor at the time announced in 2021 that she was opening an investigation into possible crimes on Palestinian territory. Israel often levies accusations of bias at U.N. and international bodies, and Netanyahu condemned the decision as hypocritical and antisemitic.

In 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump authorized economic and travel sanctions on the ICC prosecutor and another senior prosecutor. The ICC staff were looking into U.S. and allies’ troops for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.

U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration has provided crucial military and political support for the Gaza offensive, lifted the sanctions in 2021.

Last year, the court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on charges of responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. Russia responded by issuing its own arrest warrants for Khan and ICC judges.

Other high-profile leaders charged by the court include ousted Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir on allegations including genocide in his country’s Darfur region. Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed by rebels shortly after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest on charges linked to the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011.



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Watch | Israel’s Rafah invasion | Explained

The pre-war population of Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza strip sharing a border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was 1,70,000. Today, seven months after Israel launched its war on Gaza, as many as 1.5 million people are living in Rafah. Many of them are camped on the streets and beaches, while others are cramped into filthy, overcrowded makeshift shelters.

Rafah is now a “gigantic refugee camp”, says the Norwegian Refugee Council. According to a doctor who served in Rafah, the city is a “closed jail”. Medics are struggling to supply even basic aid and prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases. According to Action Aid, every single person in Gaza “is now hungry and people have just 1.5 to 2 litres of unsafe water per day to meet all their needs”. A majority of Gaza’s population is now jammed in Rafah. It is in this Rafah, Israel is carrying out its latest offensive.

Rafah has always been a flashpoint in the Israel-Palestine conflict, given its territorial proximity to Egypt. After the 1948 Arab-Israel war, Rafah came under Egyptian rule along with other parts of the Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced from their homes when Israel was created were settled in Gaza.

During the Suez Crisis, Rafah came under attack when the Israeli troops were marching towards Sinai through Gaza. On November 12, 1956, the IDF raided a refugee camp in Rafah, killing at least 111 Palestinians, which came to be known as the Rafah massacre.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, the entire Gaza, including Rafah, came under Israel’s direct military occupation. Israel would retain its direct control over the enclave until 2005.

After the latest war began on October 7, 2023, Israel ordered over 1 million Palestinians living in the northern Gaza to evacuate. Most of them fled their homes and moved to southern cities such as Khan Younis and Rafah. When Khan Younis was attacked, there was another flight of refugees towards the south. Today, the lion’s share of Rafah’s population are internally displaced Palestinians.

Before Israel launched the Rafah offensive, there were dramatic developments. The U.S. had warned Israel against launching a full-scale invasion of Rafah, arguing that such an attack would kill more Palestinian civilians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel would go ahead with the plan to invade Rafah, defying international pressure, warnings and pleas. But Mr. Netanyahu is also under pressure to bring the remaining hostages back. Israel says 128 hostages abducted on October 7 are still in Hamas’s captivity, though many of them are feared dead. There are growing protests in Israel, asking the government to strike a deal with Hamas to bring the hostages back. Israel and Hamas, helped by mediators such as the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, had held multiple rounds of talks in Cairo for a ceasefire deal.

While the fine details of the ceasefire proposal were not made public yet, reports in Egyptian and Saudi media suggested that the mediators had proposed a three-phase deal that would see the release of all hostages and Palestinian prisoners and eventually bring the war to an end. In the first phase, Israel was expected to cease fire for 40 days and free Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of 33 hostages.

In the second phase, the ceasefire would be extended by 42 more days, while all the remaining living hostages would be released.

The third phase proposals were the most contentious. Israel wanted Hamas to release the bodies of all hostages and Hamas wanted a comprehensive, lasting ceasefire and full withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel says no to both Hamas demands. Israeli troops have been deployed in northern and central Gaza, effectively carving the northern tip of the strip as a buffer zone between Israel proper and Gaza’s population. If the Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza, Israeli officials say, Palestinians as well as Hamas militants would return to the areas close to the Israeli border. And if Israel agrees to a lasting ceasefire, the remaining Hamas battalions would survive.

When Israel launched the war on October 7, it made its twin objectives public: dismantle Hamas and release the hostages. Seven months after the war, in which roughly 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, Israel has not met either of the objectives. One practical solution to the hostage crisis is to strike a deal with Hamas. But Hamas would release the hostages only in return for a ceasefire. And if Israel agrees for a ceasefire, Hamas would survive. This is the dilemma Mr. Netanyahu is facing.

Earlier, Biden administration officials had said Hamas was the major stumbling block for a ceasefire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 4 that “the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas”. But on May 6, Hamas’s Doha-based leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group accepted the ceasefire proposal suggested by the mediators in Cairo. The Hamas announcement came hours after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) ordered at least 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah. Mr. Netanyahu’s government immediately rejected the Hamas offer, saying it did not meet Israel’s core demands. The Prime Minister later said Israel would never agree to end the war in Gaza as part of a deal with Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu’s tough line on Rafah has created tensions in Israel’s ties with the U.S. Earlier President Biden had said a full-scale attack on Rafah without a proper plan to protect civilians would be a redline for him. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that any attack on the overcrowded Rafah would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. If he abandons the plan to attack Rafah and cuts a deal with Hamas for hostages, Netanyahu’s government could fall as his far-right allies such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have already warned against such a move. If he goes ahead with the plan to invade Rafah, more Palestinian civilians would be killed, Israel would further be isolated globally and tensions would rise in ties with the U.S. But Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to bother.

“If Israel has to stand alone, it will stand alone,” he said on May 10, less than a month after American, British, French and Jordanian defence systems, along with the IDF, shot down most of the drones and cruise and ballistic missiles launched by Iran towards Israel.

Read more: Rafah | Opening the gates of hell

Read more: Israel’s ‘limited’ military operation in Rafah | Explained

Script and presentation: Stanly Johny

Video: Thamodharan B.

Production: Ravichandran N.

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Explained | Israel’s limited military operation in Rafah

Smoke billows after Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday, May 6, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: Israel advancing with a long-anticipated ground invasion of Rafah and seizing control of the Gaza side of the border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday, shortly after Hamas announced its acceptance of a ceasefire proposal brokered by Egypt and Qatar, has cast a shadow on the prospects of halting the war, which has claimed the lives of over 34,700 people so far.

Israeli tanks moved into the southern part of the city overnight, while warplanes bombed areas near the crucial Rafah border crossing, killing at least 23 Palestinians and injuring several others. The invasion, described by the U.S. as a “limited operation,” unfolded a day after the Israeli military ordered over a million people sheltering in Rafah to evacuate parts of the southern Gaza Strip city and relocate to an “expanded humanitarian zone” near Khan Younis, in preparation for an assault to “eradicate” Hamas.

Explained | How bad is the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

The military operation in Rafah: what, why and how

Israel ordered the Rafah evacuation after four of its soldiers were killed in a rocket attack claimed by the Hamas armed wing near Rafah on May 5. The evacuation order prompted widespread concern about the potential ramifications for the millions of displaced Palestinians camping there.

The U.S. cautioned PM Benjamin Netanyahu against launching a southern Gaza offensive. Terming the impending invasion as a “red line” for his administration, President Joe Biden said further military action risked more casualties and devastation. Further, in a telephonic conversation with the Israeli PM, the U.S. President again highlighted the necessity of a ceasefire with Hamas to protect Israeli hostages and emphasised it as the best course of action.

Human rights groups and aid agencies also warned that an Israeli incursion could result in dire consequences, potentially leading to a “bloodbath.”

Against the backdrop of an imminent all-out military assault on Rafah, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh announced that the group accepted a ceasefire proposal mediated by Qatar and Egypt. Israel must decide whether it accepts or obstructs a truce, a Hamas official said. The ball is now in Israel’s court, the official told AFP.

Israel, meanwhile, remained defiant and insisted on invading Rafah despite international pressure. Tel Aviv said it would “stand alone if it has to.”

Hours after Hamas’ announcement raised hopes of a pause in firing, Mr. Netanyahu rejected the ceasefire agreement as “far from Israel’s necessary demands,” claiming that its terms had been “softened.”

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024.

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024.

In a statement, the Israeli PM said the war Cabinet had unanimously decided to continue its operation in Rafah to “apply military pressure on Hamas,” advance the release of hostages and achieve the “other objectives” of the war. It added that a delegation will be nonetheless sent to meet with mediators in Cairo “to exhaust the possibility” of reaching an agreement on “terms acceptable to Israel.”

On Sunday night, the military alert dropped leaflets and sent messages, ordering people to relocate to an expanded humanitarian zone ‘Muwasi,’ a makeshift tent camp. Notably, the Israeli military had issued similar evacuation orders at the onset of the war in 2023, often directing civilians to vacate combat zones before offensive actions and asking them to move south to Rafah.

Soon after, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched a “precise counterterrorism operation to eliminate Hamas terrorists and infrastructure” in eastern Rafah. Twenty-three people, including six women and five children, were killed in the series of strikes and bombardment across Rafah, Associated Press reported. 

In a first since its 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli military returned to the point and seized control of the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza side. Video clips shared online by the IDF showed Israeli flags flying at the checkpoint and atop tanks. “The IDF will continue pursuing Hamas everywhere in Gaza until all the hostages that they’re holding in captivity are back home,” it posted on X.

The View From India | Why truce remains elusive in Gaza

What is the significance of Rafah for Israel? 

The southern city of Rafah has served as a shelter for an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians forced to leave their homes to escape military action after Israel launched a military campaign following Hamas’ October 2023 attacks in Israel in which at least 1,200 people were killed. 

The Rafah crossing has been a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people caught in the conflict. The border point is the main exit point from Gaza, and the sole crossing not directly under Israeli control. It is the centre for delivery of critical aid, food and humanitarian assistance, facilitating the exit of injured people and foreign passport holders from the strife-torn area. The displaced Palestinians and residents, living in densely packed camps and apartments in Rafah, are entirely dependent on international aid for food and basic supplies arriving in Gaza from the Rafah border crossing.

The area emerged as a focal point in the escalating conflict in recent months amid Israel’s claims that the crossing is used for “terrorist purposes.” Israel contended that Rafah is Hamas’ “last bastion” and shelters thousands of fighters and potentially numerous hostages. The administration claimed that four of the militant group’s 24 battalions are based in the area.

Israeli PM Netanyahu repeatedly deemed Rafah crucial to achieve his government’s “central goal” of dismantling the military and governing capabilities of Hamas. “It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement in February. 

A week ago, the Israeli PM vowed to enter Rafah and destroy Hamas’ remaining battalions, regardless of whether a deal was reached or not. “The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there — with a deal or without a deal, to achieve total victory,” Mr. Netanyahu later said in a meeting with the families of the hostages.

With Israeli troops taking control of the Rafah crossing on Tuesday, Israel now has full authority over the entry and exit of people and aid. The development has sparked global concern over the fate of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, left hungry and homeless due to the war.



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Netanyahu approves new Gaza ceasefire talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved new talks on a Gaza ceasefire, a day after the world’s top court ordered Israel to ensure urgent humanitarian aid reaches people in the Palestinian territory.

But despite a binding United Nations Security Council resolution this week demanding an “immediate ceasefire”, fighting continued Friday, including around hospitals.

Also Read | UN agency says ‘famine is imminent’ in Gaza; aid distribution is virtually impossible because of Israeli restrictions

Regional fallout from the conflict also flared, with Israel saying it killed a Hezbollah rocket commander in Lebanon, and several Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria strikes that a war monitor blamed on Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office said new talks on a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release will take place in Doha and Cairo “in the coming days… with guidelines for moving forward in the negotiations”, days after they appeared stalled.

In its order, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague said: “Palestinians in Gaza are no longer facing only a risk of famine, but… famine is setting in.”

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, posted on X that the ruling was “a stark reminder that the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is man made + worsening”.

The court had ruled in January that Israel must facilitate “urgently needed” humanitarian aid to Gaza and prevent genocidal acts, but Israel rejected the case brought by South Africa.

The latest binding ICJ ruling, which has little means of enforcement, came as Israel’s military said Friday it was continuing operations in Al-Shifa Hospital, the territory’s largest, for a 12th day.

Throughout the coastal territory, dozens of people were killed overnight, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said.

Among the dead were 12 people killed in a home in the southern city of Rafah, which has been regularly bombed ahead of a mooted Israeli ground operation there.

Men worked under the light of mobile phones to free people trapped under debris after an air strike, AFPTV images showed.

The ICJ ordered Israel to “take all necessary and effective measures to ensure, without delay” the supply “of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance”.

Immediate ceasefire

The war began with Hamas’s October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign to destroy Hamas has killed at least 32,623 people, mostly women and children, Gaza’s health ministry says.

Large parts of the territory have been reduced to rubble, and most of Gaza’s population are now sheltering in Rafah.

On Monday the UN Security Council demanded an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, the release of hostages held by militants, and “ensuring humanitarian access”.

Member states are obliged to abide by such resolutions, but the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity said nothing has changed on the ground.

Aid groups say only a fraction of the supplies required have been allowed in since October, when Israel placed Gaza under near-total siege.

Israel has blamed shortages on the Palestinian side, namely a lack of capacity to distribute aid, with humanitarians saying not enough trucks are allowed in to make deliveries.

With limited ground access, several nations have staged airdrops, and a sea corridor from Cyprus has delivered its first food aid.

Heavy damage

The U.N. says Gaza’s health system is collapsing “due to ongoing hostilities and access constraints”.

Israel’s military accuses Hamas and the Islamic Jihad of hiding inside medical facilities, using patients, staff and displaced people for cover – charges the militants have denied.

On Friday the army said it was “continuing precise operation activities in Shifa Hospital” where it began a raid early last week.

Troops first raided Al-Shifa in November, before Israel in January announced it had “completed the dismantling” of Hamas’s command structure in northern Gaza. Palestinian militants and commanders had since returned to Al-Shifa, the army said.

Mr. Netanyahu has said troops “are holding the northern Gaza Strip” and also the southern city of Khan Yunis, amid heavy fighting.

“We have bisected the Strip and we are preparing to enter Rafah,” he said Thursday.

Mr. Netanyahu is under domestic pressure over his failure to bring home all of the hostages seized by militants on October 7. Israel says about 130 captives remain in Gaza, including 34 presumed dead.

About 200 militants have been killed during the latest Al-Shifa operation, the military said.

Near Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Yunis, troops carried out “targeted raids on terrorist infrastructure”, killing dozens in combat backed by air support, the army said Thursday.

Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles have massed around another Khan Yunis health facility, the Nasser Hospital, the Gaza health ministry said.

An analysis of satellite images shows heavily damaged areas around the Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals.

Deadliest toll

Since the Gaza war began, Israel has increased its strikes in Syria, targeting army positions and Iran-backed forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, a key Hamas ally.

A Britain-based war monitor said Israeli air strikes Friday in north Syria killed at least 42 people, six from Hezbollah and 36 Syrian soldiers.

And Israel’s military said it killed Ali Abdel Hassan Naim, deputy commander of Hezbollah’s rocket unit, in an air strike in south Lebanon Friday.

U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators have tried to secure a truce in Gaza, but those talks had appeared deadlocked more than halfway through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Tensions have risen between Netanyahu and Washington, which provides billions of dollars in military aid but has grown increasingly vocal about the war’s impact on civilians.

Washington has also raised the issue of Gaza’s post-war rule. It has suggested a future role for the Palestinian Authority, which has partial administrative control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

On Thursday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas approved the new government of prime minister Mohammed Mustafa, who said his cabinet will work on “visions to reunify the institutions, including assuming responsibility for Gaza”.

Hamas forcibly took Gaza from Abbas’s government in 2007.

Netanyahu says Israel must have “security responsibility” in Gaza, and has rejected calls for a Palestinian state.

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Heavy fighting rages around Gaza’s biggest hospital as Israel raids it for a second day

Explosions and shootings shook the Gaza Strip’s biggest hospital and surrounding neighborhoods as Israeli forces stormed through the facility for a second day Tuesday. The military said it had killed 50 Hamas militants in the hospital, but it could not be independently confirmed that the dead were combatants.

The raid was a new blow to the Shifa medical complex, which had only partially resumed operations after a destructive Israeli raid in November. Thousands of Palestinian patients, medical staff and displaced people were trapped inside the sprawling complex on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, as heavy fighting between troops and Hamas fighters raged in nearby districts.

“It’s very hard right now. There’s heavy bombardment in the area of Shifa, and buildings are being hit. The sound of tank and artillery fire is continuous,” Emy Shaheen, who lives near the hospital, said in a voice message with repeated booms of shelling audible in the background. She said a large fire had been raging for hours near the hospital.

The Israeli military said it raided Shifa early Monday, March18, because Hamas fighters had grouped in the hospital and were directing attacks from inside.

The claim could not be confirmed, and the Hamas media office said all those killed in the assault were civilians. But the surge in fighting in Gaza City underscored Hamas’ continued presence in northern Gaza months after Israeli ground troops claimed they largely had control over the area.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza vowing to destroy Hamas after the group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. More than 31,800 Palestinians have been killed in the bombardment and offensive since. Much of northern Gaza has been leveled, and an international authority on hunger crises warned on Monday that 70% of the people there were experiencing catastrophic hunger and that famine was imminent.

The mayhem in the north came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his determination to invade Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah – one of the last major towns not targeted by a ground assault.

Biden’s call to Netanyahu

A day earlier, in their first phone call in a month, U.S. President Joe Biden urged Mr. Netanyahu not to carry out a Rafah operation, urging “an alternative approach” to more precisely target Hamas fighters there.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has expressed concern over attacking Rafah because some 1.4 million people from across Gaza have crowded into the area. U.N. officials have warned of a massive death toll and the potential collapse of the humanitarian aid effort if troops moved into Rafah.

Mr. Netanyahu agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to discuss Rafah with Biden administration officials.

But on Tuesday, he told a parliamentary committee that while he would listen to U.S. proposals “out of respect” to Biden, “we are determined to complete the elimination of these (Hamas) battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion.”

Airstrikes in Rafah overnight destroyed an apartment and several houses, killing at least 15 people, including six women and children, hospital officials said.

The army last raided Shifa Hospital in November after claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command center within and beneath the facility. The military revealed a tunnel leading to some underground rooms, as well as weapons it said were found inside the hospital. However, the evidence fell short of the earlier claims, and critics accused the army of recklessly endangering the lives of civilians.

The hospital, which is the heart of Gaza’s health system, was severely damaged in the assault and has only been able to resume limited operations since. Gaza officials say some 30,000 displaced people were taking refuge in the compound when the new Israeli assault began.

The raid came before dawn Monday when tanks surrounded the facility and troops stormed into multiple buildings.

The military on Tuesday said two of its soldiers had been killed in the operation. It said Tuesday that 300 suspects were detained, including dozens it accused of being fighters from Hamas and the smaller Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. Some patients were evacuated to nearby Ahli Hospital, said Mahmoud Bassal, civil defense spokesperson.

Abdel-Hady Sayed, who has been sheltering in the Shifa hospital, said troops had rounded up dozens in the hospital’s yard, blindfolding, handcuffing, and ordering them to strip their clothes before some were taken away.

He said those inside, especially men, were afraid to follow Israeli calls to evacuate the hospital. “They tell you to get out, it’s a safe corridor and once they see you they arrest you,” he said. “All are afraid here. The world should do something to stop them.”

The military has identified one person killed in the raid — Faiq Mabhouh, a senior officer in Gaza’s police force, which is under the Hamas-led government but distinct from the militant group’s armed fighting wing. The military said he was hiding in Shifa with weapons, but the Gaza government said he was in charge of protecting aid distribution in the north.

The raid prompted heavy fighting for blocks around Shifa. Hamas’ military wing said it struck two Israeli armored vehicles and a group of soldiers with rockets in the vicinity of the hospital.

Emergency services received multiple calls for help from people whose buildings had been bombed in the streets around Shifa, but rescue teams could not go to the scene because of the fighting, Bassal said.

Kareem al-Shawwa, a Palestinian living about a kilometer (less than a mile) from the hospital, said the past 24 hours had been “terrifying,” with explosions and heavy exchanges of fire. He said Israeli troops had told residents to evacuate the area, but he and his family were too afraid of getting arrested or caught in the fighting to leave their home.

Israel accuses Hamas of using hospitals and other civilian facilities to shield its fighters, and the Israeli military has raided several hospitals since the start of the war.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Monday that at least 31,726 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, but it says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel that triggered the war and took another 250 people hostage. Hamas is still believed to be holding about 100 captives, as well as the remains of 30 others, after most of the rest were freed during a cease-fire last year.

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Biden cajoles Netanyahu with tough talk, humanitarian concerns but Israeli PM remains dug in

U.S. President Joe Biden has stepped up public pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, warning he’s “hurting Israel” and speaking candidly about “come to Jesus” conversations with the leader over the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Despite Mr. Biden’s increased displays of frustration, Israeli officials and Middle East analysts say no signs are emerging that Mr. Biden can push Israel, at least in the short term, to fundamentally alter how it’s prosecuting the conflict that is entering a new dangerous phase.

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“He has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Netanyahu in an MSNBC interview. “But he must, he must, he must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken. He’s hurting…in my view, he’s hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

The U.S. President had hoped to have an extended cease-fire in place by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is set to begin Monday. Biden administration officials see a deal on a temporary truce in exchange for dozens of hostages as a crucial step toward finding an eventual permanent end to the conflict.

But with no deal emerging, Mr. Biden acknowledged last week that he has become more concerned about the prospect of violence in east Jerusalem. Clashes have erupted during Ramadan in recent years between Palestinians and Israeli security forces around Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the emotional epicenter of the Middle East conflict.

Mr. Biden this weekend warned Mr. Netanyahu that an attack on Rafah—where hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans have congregated—would be a “red line” and that Israel “cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead.” At the same time, he said that his commitment to Israel’s defense is sacrosanct.

State of Union address

The President’s blunt comments came after he was caught on a hot mic following his State of Union address on Thursday telling a Democratic ally that he’s told Mr. Netanyahu they will have a “come to Jesus” talk about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The U.S. this month began airdrops and announced it will establish a temporary pier to get badly needed aid into Gaza via sea. U.N. officials have warned at least one quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are one step away from famine. The extraordinary measures to get aid into Gaza have come as Israel has resisted U.S. calls to allow more in via land routes.

And in a move that irritated Mr. Netanyahu, Vice President Kamala Harris last week hosted a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, Benny Gantz, who came to Washington in defiance of the prime minister. U.S. officials said that Harris, and other senior advisers to Mr. Biden, were blunt with Gantz about their concerns about an expected Rafah operation.

Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday pushed back againstMr. Biden’s latest comments.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what the president meant, but if he meant…that I’m pursuing private policies against the majority, the wish of the majority of Israelis, and that this is hurting the interests of Israel, then he’s wrong on both counts,” Netanyahu said in a clip of an interview with Politico, released by the prime minister’s office on Sunday.

Mr. Biden’s stepped up criticism of the prime minister’s handling of the war has been an intentional effort to signal to Mr. Netanyahu that the U.S. president is running out of patience with the mounting death toll and lack of aid flow into Gaza, according to a U.S. official familiar with the president’s thinking. The official was not authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Elsewhere in Israel, the reaction to Mr. Biden’s public venting of frustration was mixed.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said he wasn’t surprised by Mr. Biden’s remarks. Lapid on Sunday accused Mr. Netanyahu of pandering to his base and said the prime minister had narrow political interests in mind, like placating the far-right members of his Cabinet.

The U.S. “lost faith in Mr. Netanyahu and it’s not surprising. Half of his Cabinet has lost faith in him as has the majority of Israel’s citizens,” Lapid, who briefly served as prime minister in 2022, told Israeli Army Radio. “Netanyahu must go.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz downplayed Mr. Biden’s comments, saying the U.S. backed Israel’s war aims and that was what mattered. “We must distinguish rhetoric from the essence,” he told Israeli Army Radio.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations and professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Mr. Biden’s decision to scale up aid to Gaza and warn Israel about an incursion into Rafah undermined support for Israel’s aims of dismantling Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and freeing the hostages. He said it relieved Hamas of pressure to agree to a temporary cease-fire deal.

He said Mr. Biden’s harsher comments of late came out of a frustration with Mr. Netanyahu over his reluctance to accept the U.S. vision for a postwar Gaza. Mr. Biden has called for Middle East stakeholders to reinvigorate efforts to find a two-state solution, one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state, once the current war ends.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, has consistently opposed establishing a Palestinian state throughout his political career.

Gilboa said Mr. Biden’s remarks were made with an eye on his reelection and were aimed at appeasing progressive Democrats. The president is facing growing pressure from the left-wing of his party to use the United States’ considerable leverage as Israel’s chief patron to force Mr. Netanyahu toward a permanent cease-fire.

More than 100,00 Michigan Democrats cast “uncommitted” ballots in the state’s primary last month, part of a coordinated effort in the battleground state intended to show Mr. Biden that he could lose much-needed support over frustration with his administration’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war.

“Netanyahu earned that criticism, but on the other hand when (Biden) criticizes Mr. Netanyahu personally, he thinks he improves his standing among progressives,” Gilboa said.

But Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that pointed criticism of the Netanyahu government has limited value for Mr. Biden politically.

“Words without deeds are not going to bring those voters back,” Miller said. “The hemorrhaging is going to continue as long as the pictures in Gaza don’t change.”

Gilboa said that even if a different government were running Israel, such as a more moderate figure like Gantz, Mr. Biden would still find a leadership intent on entering Rafah and defeating Hamas.

“They wouldn’t do things significantly different,” he said. “Is there anyone of sound mind here who is willing to leave Hamas in Gaza? That won’t happen.”

Biden administration officials pushed back against the idea that the president has become more outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Netanyahu with an eye on his 2024 prospects.

It’s not lost on Mr. Biden that Israelis across the political spectrum remain as hawkish as Mr. Netanyahu about eliminating Hamas. Still, Mr. Biden believes that by speaking out more forcefully he can sway the Israelis to do more to reduce the death toll and alleviate suffering of innocent Palestinians as Israel carries out its operations, according to the U.S. official.

Mr. Biden, who last traveled to Israel soon after Hamas’ launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, said in the MSNBC interview that he was open to travelling to Israel again to speak directly to the Knesset.

Privately, M. Biden has expressed a desire to aides to make another trip to Israel to try to circumvent Mr. Netanyahu and take his message directly to the people. One possibility discussed internally for a presidential trip is if a temporary cease-fire agreement is reached. Mr. Biden could use the moment to press the case directly to Israelis for humanitarian assistance in Gaza and begin outlining a path toward a permanent end to the fighting, officials said.

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US to block UN resolution for Gaza ceasefire as Israel bombs Rafah

The World Health Organisation warned on Sunday that the Nasser Hospital in Gaza is “not functional anymore”.

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Israeli strikes across Gaza killed at least 18 people overnight and into Sunday, according to medics and witnesses, as the United States said it would veto another draft UN ceasefire resolution.

An airstrike in Rafah overnight killed six people, including a woman and three children, and another strike killed five men in Khan Younis, the main target of the offensive over the past two months. 

In Gaza City, which was isolated, largely evacuated and suffered widespread destruction in the initial weeks of the war, an airstrike flattened a family home, killing seven people, including three women, according to Sayed al-Afifi, a relative of the deceased.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained defiant to international pressure over a ground operation in Rafah – where 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half the enclave’s population, are sheltering – and to calls for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Such calls were reiterated by the French and Egyptian leaders on Sunday who, according to a readout of their call from the Elysée “expressed their firm opposition to an Israeli offensive at Rafah, which would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe on a new scale, as well as any forced displacement of populations into Egyptian territory, which would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law and pose a further risk of regional escalation”. 

“They also stressed the need to work towards a way out of the crisis, and the decisive and irreversible relaunch of the political process, with a view to the effective implementation of the two-state solution,” the readout also says.

Negotiations ‘not progressing as expected’

But Netanyahu’s Cabinet adopted a declaration Sunday saying Israel “categorically rejects international edicts on a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians” and opposes any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, which it said would “grant a major prize to terror” after the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until “total victory” over Hamas and to expand it to Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah.

The US, Israel’s top ally, which hopes to broker a ceasefire agreement and hostage release between Israel and Hamas, and envisions a wider resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile said it would veto a draft UN ceasefire resolution circulated by Algeria.

The Arab representative on the UN Security Council’s resolution calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, unhindered humanitarian access, as well as rejecting the forced displacement of Palestinian civilians.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement late Saturday that the draft resolution runs counter to Washington’s own efforts to end the fighting and “will not be adopted.”

“It is critical that other parties give this process the best odds of succeeding, rather than push measures that put it — and the opportunity for an enduring resolution of hostilities — in jeopardy,” she said.

The US, Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a ceasefire and hostage release, but there’s a wide gap between Israel and Hamas’ demands and Qatar said Saturday that the talks “have not been progressing as expected.”

Hamas has said it will not release all of the remaining hostages without Israel ending the war and withdrawing from Gaza. It is also demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including top militants.

Netanyahu has publicly rejected both demands and any scenario in which Hamas would be able to rebuild its military and governing capabilities. He said he sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo last week at Biden’s request but doesn’t see the point in sending them again.

WHO team prevented from entering Nasser Hospital

Meanwhile, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that Nasser Hospital, the main medical centre serving southern Gaza, “is not functional anymore” after Israeli forces raided the facility in the southern city of Khan Younis last week.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN health agency, said a WHO team was not allowed to enter Nasser Hospital on Friday or Saturday “to assess the conditions of the patients and critical medical needs, despite reaching the hospital compound to deliver fuel alongside partners.”

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, he said there are still about 200 patients in the hospital, including 20 who need urgent referrals to other hospitals.

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Israel says it has arrested over 100 suspected militants, including 20 who it says participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, without providing evidence. The military says it is looking for the remains of hostages inside the facility and does not target doctors or patients.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 medical personnel were among those arrested, as well as patients in hospital beds who were taken away in trucks. Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesperson for the ministry, said soldiers beat detainees and stripped them of their clothes. There was no immediate comment from the military on those allegations.

The war erupted after Hamas burst through Israel’s defences and attacked communities across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostage. Militants still hold around 130 hostages, a fourth of whom are believed to be dead, after most of the others were released during a weeklong ceasefire in November.

At least 28,985 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed since the beginning of the war, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its records. The toll includes 127 bodies brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, it said Sunday. Around 80% of Gaza’s population have been driven from their homes and a quarter face starvation.

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Netanyahu promises ‘safe passage’ to Palestinians ahead of Rafah operation

The threat of an Israeli incursion into Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah persisted on Sunday, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “safe passage” to civilians displaced there.

In an interview airing on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his intention to extend Israel’s military operation against Hamas into Rafah.

Despite international alarm over the potential for carnage in a place crammed with more than half of the Gaza Strip’s 2.4 million people, Netanyahu told ABC News: “We’re going to do it”.

“We’re going to do it while providing safe passage for the civilian population so they can leave,” he said, according to published extracts of the interview.

It remains unclear however, where the large number of people pressed up against the border with Egypt and sheltering in makeshift tents can go.

When asked, Mr. Netanyahu would only say they are “working out a detailed plan”.

As Israeli forces have pushed steadily southwards, Rafah has become the last major population centre in Gaza that troops have yet to enter, even as it is bombarded by air strikes almost daily.

“They said Rafah is safe, but it is not. All places are being targeted,” Palestinian Mohammed Saydam said after an Israeli strike destroyed a police vehicle in the city on Saturday.

The Israeli Premier, who contends “victory” over Hamas cannot be achieved without clearing battalions in Rafah, directed his military on Friday to prepare for the operation. His announcement set off a chorus of concern from world leaders and aid groups.

“The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on social media platform X, adding that an Israeli offensive on Rafah would be a “humanitarian catastrophe in the making.”

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry warned Saturday of “very serious repercussions of storming and targeting” Rafah and called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting, while UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he is “deeply concerned” about the prospective offensive.

“The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out,” he wrote.

– Sharpening US rebuke –

The war in Gaza was sparked by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive in Gaza that the territory’s health ministry says has killed at least 28,064 people, mostly women and children.

Militants also seized 250 hostages, 132 of whom are still in Gaza, although 29 are presumed dead, Israel has said.

Netanyahu announced the plan for a ground operation in Rafah only days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel seeking a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange.

Netanyahu has rejected the proposed truce after what he called “bizarre demands” from Hamas.

But Israel’s plans for Rafah have drawn sharp rebuke from main ally and military backer Washington, with the State Department warning that if not properly planned, such an operation risks “disaster”.

In unusually sharp criticism, US President Joe Biden on Thursday called Israel’s retaliatory campaign “over the top”.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers warned on Saturday that a full-scale Israeli invasion of Rafah could cause “tens of thousands” of casualties.

The office of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the move “threatens security and peace in the region and the world” and is “a blatant violation of all red lines”.

The Hamas-run territory’s health ministry said on Sunday that 94 people were killed in overnight bombardments across Gaza, including in Rafah.

The Israeli military said it killed two “senior Hamas operatives” in a strike on Rafah Saturday.

It was part of a wider bombardment that killed at least 25 people in the city, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

– UNRWA under pressure –

To the north in Gaza City, Israel’s military claimed that its troops uncovered a Hamas tunnel under the evacuated headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for its head, Philippe Lazzarini, to quit.

Lazzarini said the agency had not operated from the compound since October 12 when staff evacuated it under instruction from Israeli forces.

Already under pressure after Israel claimed 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 Hamas attack, he called for an independent investigation into the latest Israeli accusations.

An AFP photographer was among a number of journalists taken to the compound and tunnel by the Israeli military on Thursday.

UN premises are considered “inviolable” in international law and immune from “search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference”.

Hamas has repeatedly denied Israeli accusations that it has dug a network of tunnels under schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure as cover for its activities.

On Sunday, Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy called UNRWA “a Hamas front”.

– Public fury –

The war, now in its fifth month, has spawned intensifying public fury in Israel.

Protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demand the release of the hostages, Netanyahu step down and fresh elections be called.

“It’s clear Netanyahu is dragging out the war, he has no idea what to do on the day after,” Israeli protester Gil Gordon said.

The war has had far-reaching impact well bedyond Israel and Gaza, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas surging across the Middle East.

A senior Hamas officer survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Lebanon, Palestinian and Lebanese security sources told AFP, but two other people including a Hezbollah member were killed in the attack.

And in Syria, Israeli strikes near Damascus killed three people, a war monitor said, adding the targeted neighbourhood hosted villas for top military and civilian officials.

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