U.N. says violence against children in conflict reached extreme levels in 2023, including in Gaza

Violence against children caught in multiplying and escalating conflicts reached “extreme levels” in 2023, with an unprecedented number of killings and injuries in crises, from Israel and the Palestinian territories to Sudan, Myanmar and Ukraine, according to a new U.N. report.

The annual report on Children in Armed Conflict, obtained on June 11 by The Associated Press, reported “a shocking 21% increase in grave violations” against children under the age of 18 in an array of conflicts, also citing Congo, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Syria.

Israel, Russia in U.N.’s blacklist

For the first time, the U.N. report put Israeli forces on its blacklist of countries that violate children’s rights for the killing and maiming of children and attacking schools and hospitals.

It listed Hamas and Palestinian militants for the first time as well for killing, injuring and abducting children.

Hamas’ October 7 surprise attack in southern Israel and Israel’s massive military retaliation in Gaza have led to a 155% increase in grave violations against children, especially from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Gaza, said the report by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The United Nations kept the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups on its blacklist for a second year over their killing and maiming of children and attacking schools and hospitals in Ukraine.

The U.N. verified the killing of 80 Ukrainian children and maiming of 419 others by Russian forces and their affiliates last year, most from explosive weapons, the report said.

Violations Against Children Amid Escalating Conflicts in Sudan and Myanmar

Sudan, where a war between rival generals vying for power has been raging since 2023, witnessed “a staggering 480% increase in grave violations against children, the report said.

The Sudanese Armed Forces and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces went on the blacklist for killing and injuring youngsters and attacking schools and hospitals — and the paramilitary also for recruiting and using children in military operations and for rape and sexual violence.

By the end of 2023, secretary-general Mr. Guterres said the U.N. had verified 1,721 grave violations against 1,526 children. “I am appalled by the dramatic increase in grave violations,” he said, especially the recruitment, killing and maiming of children as well as sexual violence and attacks on schools and hospitals.

The growing civil war in Myanmar also saw a 123% increase in grave violations against children and the Myanmar armed forces and related militias and seven armed groups are also on this year’s blacklist.

The report said the U.N. verified 2,799 grave violations against 2,093 children – including 238 killings and 623 injuries attributed to the military and its allied militias.

Huge jump in violations against children in 2023

The United Nations verified 30,705 violations against children in 2023 and 2,285 committed earlier, affecting over 15,800 boys and more than 6,250 girls. Some were subjected to multiple violations, the report said.

While armed groups were responsible for almost 50 per cent of the grave violations, it said, “government forces were the main perpetrator of the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access.”

Mr. Guterres said the alarming increase in violations is due to “the changing nature, complexity, expansion and intensification of armed conflict, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians” and infrastructure and other essential buildings, as well as the emergence of new armed groups, acute humanitarian emergencies, and “blatant disregard” for international law.

The U.N. chief said he is “appalled by the dramatic increase and unprecedented scale and intensity of grave violations against children in the Gaza Strip, Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, despite my repeated calls for parties to implement measures to prevent grave violations.”

Mr. Guterres said he was shocked by Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s killing, maiming and abduction of children on October 7, 2023, saying nothing can justify these “brutal acts of terror.” And he said he was appalled at reports of sexual violence during the attacks which must be investigated.

The magnitude of the Israeli military campaign against Hamas “and the scope of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip have been unprecedented,” he said, reiterating calls for Israel to abide by international law and ensure civilians are not targeted, and that excessive force is not used during law enforcement operations.

In 2023, the report said, 5,698 grave violations against children were attributed to Israeli forces, 116 to Hamas, 58 to unidentified perpetrators, 51 to Israeli settlers, 21 to Islamic Jihad, 13 to Palestinian individuals, and 1 to Palestinian Authority Security Forces. It said the process of verifying the attribution of 2,051 other violations is ongoing.

Just in the Gaza Strip, the report said the U.N. verified the killing of 2,267 Palestinian children. It said some 9,100 children were reported killed in the territory “and verification is ongoing.”

Overall in the Palestinian territories, it said, “some 19,887 Palestinian children were reported killed or maimed and “the reports are pending verification.”

Progress in Child Protection

On a positive note, the secretary-general reported progress in engaging with blacklisted governments and armed groups to protect children. He cited Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

“More than 10,600 children formerly associated with armed forces or groups received protection or reintegration support during 2023,” Mr. Guterres said.

To get off the blacklist, government forces and armed groups must develop an “action plan” to address the violations with the office of the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, and then implement it.

Mr. Guterres welcomed an offer by the Israeli government on May 28 to engage with special representative Virginia Gamba to develop an action plan.

He also welcomed Russia’s continued engagement with Mrs Gamba “to end and prevent grave violations against children,” and urged its armed forces to develop and sign an action plan.

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Debunked accounts of Hamas’s sexual crimes fuel debates over Israel’s war

Chaim Otmazgin had tended to dozens of shot, burned or mutilated bodies before he reached the home that would put him at the center of a global clash.

Working in a kibbutz that was ravaged by Hamas’ October 7 attack, Mr. Otmazgin — a volunteer commander with ZAKA, an Israeli search and rescue organisation — saw the body of a teenager, shot dead and separated from her family in a different room. Her pants had been pulled down below her waist. He thought that was evidence of sexual violence.

He alerted journalists to what he’d seen. He tearfully recounted the details in a nationally televised appearance in the Israeli Parliament. In the frantic hours, days and weeks that followed the Hamas attack, his testimony ricocheted across the world.

But it turns out that what Mr. Otmazgin thought had occurred in the home at the kibbutz hadn’t happened.

Beyond the numerous and well-documented atrocities committed by Hamas militants on October 7, some accounts from that day, like Mr. Otmazgin’s, proved untrue.

“It’s not that I invented a story,” Mr. Otmazgin told AP in an interview, detailing the origins of his initial explosive claim — one of two by ZAKA volunteers about sexual violence that turned out to be unfounded.

“I couldn’t think of any other option” other than the teen having been sexually assaulted, he said. “At the end, it turned out to be different, so I corrected myself.”

But it was too late.

The United Nations and other organisations have presented credible evidence that Hamas militants committed sexual assault during their rampage. The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said Monday he had reason to believe that three key Hamas leaders bore responsibility for “rape and other acts of sexual violence as crimes against humanity.”

Though the number of assaults is unclear, photo and video from the attack’s aftermath have shown bodies with legs splayed, clothes torn and blood near their genitals.

Editorial | Justified balance: On the ICC move against Israel, Hamas

However, debunked accounts like Mr. Otmazgin’s have encouraged scepticism and fueled a highly charged debate about the scope of what occurred on October 7 — one that is still playing out on social media and in college campus protests.

Some allege the accounts of sexual assault were purposely concocted. ZAKA officials and others dispute that. Regardless, AP’s examination of ZAKA’s handling of the now debunked stories shows how information can be clouded and distorted in the chaos of the conflict.

As some of the first people on the scene, ZAKA volunteers offered testimony of what they saw that day. Those words have helped journalists, Israeli lawmakers and U.N. investigators paint a picture of what occurred during Hamas’ attack. (ZAKA, a volunteer-based group, does not do forensic work. The organisation has been a fixture at Israeli disaster sites and scenes of attacks since it was founded in 1995. Its specific job is to collect bodies in keeping with Jewish law.)

Still, it took ZAKA months to acknowledge the accounts were wrong, allowing them to proliferate. And the fallout from the debunked accounts shows how the topic of sexual violence has been used to further political agendas.

Israel points to sexual violence on October 7 to highlight what it says is Hamas’ savagery and to justify its wartime goal of neutralising any repeated threat coming from Gaza. It has accused the international community of ignoring or playing down evidence of sexual violence claims, alleging anti-Israel bias. It says any untrue stories were an anomaly in the face of the many documented atrocities.

In turn, some of Israel’s critics have seized on the ZAKA accounts, along with others shown to be untrue, to allege that the Israeli government has distorted the facts to prosecute a war — one in which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them women and children, according to Gaza health officials.

A U.N. fact-finding team found “reasonable grounds” to believe that some of those who stormed southern Israel on October 7 had committed sexual violence, including rape and gang rape. But the U.N. investigators also said that in the absence of forensic evidence and survivor testimony, it would be impossible to determine the scope of such violence. Hamas has denied its forces committed sexual violence.

Israel was caught off guard by the ferocity of the October 7 assault, the deadliest in the nation’s history. About 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage. It took days for the military to clear the area of militants.

There were hundreds of bodies scattered across southern Israel, bearing various signs of abuse: burns, bullet holes, signs of mutilation, marks indicating bodies were bound. ZAKA volunteers weren’t used to dealing with so many bodies.

“You get dizzy at some point,” said Moti Bukjin, ZAKA’s spokesperson. “Some of the bodies are burned. Some are mutilated. Some of the bodies are decapitated. Every house has a story.”

Standard protocols for dealing with attacks, which Israel encountered frequently on a far smaller scale in the early 2000s, collapsed. There was confusion over who was dead and who was taken captive, especially in the hard-hit communal farming villages and in the aftermath of the outdoor Nova music festival.

Authorities were concerned that remaining militants might snatch more bodies. ZAKA says it was instructed to gather the dead as swiftly as possible and send them for identification and quick burial, according to Jewish custom. ZAKA said it sent some 800 volunteers to southern Israel, arriving at the music festival late on October 7 and entering the kibbutzim two days later, according to Mr. Otmazgin.

For the first three days, many hardly slept at all. Accompanied by military escorts, volunteers went house to house, wrapping the bodies in white plastic bags on which they wrote the person’s gender, the house number where they were found and any other identifying details. Then they’d say the Jewish mourning prayer and load them into a truck, according to Tomer Peretz, who volunteered for the first time with ZAKA in the days following the attack.

As first responders worked, rocket fire from Gaza boomed overhead. Volunteers paused and crouched when air raid sirens blared. They used anything they could find to move bodies — even shopping carts. “We worked a minute and a half per body, from the moment we touch it to the moment it is on the truck,” said Mr. Otmazgin, commander of special units with ZAKA.

Peretz, a U.S.-based artist, said the volunteers weren’t there to do forensic work; he thought the soldiers who cleared the houses of explosives beforehand were handling that process. But the Israeli military told the AP that the army did not do any forensic work in the wake of October 7.

Mr. Bukjin said police forensics teams were mostly focused on the southern cities of Sderot and Ofakim. Mr. Otmazgin said forensics workers were present in the kibbutzim but spread thin and could not follow standard — and painstaking — protocols because of the scale of the attack. He said forensics teams in the area mostly instructed ZAKA on how to help identify the bodies.

That means that bodies which might have shown signs of sexual assault could have eluded examination. Instead, they were loaded into body bags, sent to a facility to be identified and dispatched for quick burial.

“People seem to have expected that the aftermath of the attack would be like a movie, that immediately the police would come, that everything would be very sterile and very clean. People who don’t live in a war zone do not understand the horrific chaos that took place that day,” said Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive director of The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.

The group has spent months gathering evidence of sexual violence that occurred that day, sifting through many accounts emerging from the chaotic early days just after the attack. “Some of those stories that turned out not to be true were not lies,” she said. They were, she said, “mistakes.”

Mr. Otmazgin said he was the origin of one of two debunked stories by ZAKA volunteers about sexual assault.

He said he entered a home in Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest-hit communities, where nearly a tenth of the population of roughly 1,000 was killed, and found the body of a teenage girl separated from two of her relatives. Her pants, he said, were pulled down. He assumed that meant she had been sexually assaulted.

“They slaughtered her. They shot her in the head and her pants are pulled down to here. I put that out there. Have someone give me a different interpretation,” he said then, showing an AP reporter a photo he took of the scene, which he had altered by pulling up the teenager’s pants.

Today, he maintains that he never said outright that the girl whose body he saw had been sexually assaulted. But his telling strongly suggested that was the case. Mr. Otmazgin says he told journalists and lawmakers details of what he’d seen and asked if they might have some other interpretation.

Nearly three months later, ZAKA found out his interpretation was wrong. After cross-checking with military contacts, ZAKA found that a group of soldiers had dragged the girl’s body across the room to make sure it wasn’t booby-trapped. During the procedure, her pants had come down.

Mr. Otmazgin said it took time to learn the truth because the soldiers who moved the body had been deployed to Gaza for weeks and were not reachable. He said he recognised that such accounts can cause damage, but he believes he rectified it by correcting his account months later.

A military spokesperson said he had no way of knowing what had happened to every body in the assault’s immediate aftermath. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Another account with details similar to Mr. Otmazgin’s but attributed to an anonymous combat medic has also come under scrutiny after emerging in international media, including in a story by the AP. But the medic did not disclose where he saw the scene.

The military would not make the medic available for further interviews, so it was not possible to reconcile the two accounts or verify the medic’s.

Yossi Landau, a longtime ZAKA volunteer, was also working in Be’eri when he entered a home that would produce the second debunked story. Mr. Landau would recount to global media what he thought he saw: a pregnant woman lying on the floor, her fetus still attached to the umbilical cord wrenched from her body.

Mr. Otmazgin was overseeing the other ZAKA workers when he said Mr. Landau frantically called him and others into the home. But Mr. Otmazgin did not see what Mr. Landau described. Instead, he saw the body of a heavy-set woman and an unidentifiable hunk attached to an electric cable. Everything was charred.

Mr. Otmazgin said he told Mr. Landau that his interpretation was wrong — this wasn’t a pregnant woman. Still, Mr. Landau believed his version, went on to tell the story to journalists and was cited in outlets around the world. Mr. Landau, along with other first responders, also told journalists he had seen beheaded children and babies. No convincing evidence had been publicised to back up that claim, and it was debunked by Haaretz and other major media outlets.

Mr. Bukjin said it took some time for ZAKA to understand that the story was not true, then asked Mr. Landau to stop telling it. Mr. Otmazgin also told Mr. Landau to stop telling the story, but that wasn’t until about three months after the attack when ZAKA was wrapping up its work in the field. The United Nations said Mr. Landau’s claim was unfounded.

Mr. Otmazgin said it has been difficult to rein Mr. Landau in, both because he vehemently believes in his version and because there is no way to stop journalists from engaging with him directly. Both Mr. Otmazgin and Mr. Bukjin attributed Mr. Landau’s continued belief in the false account to him having been deeply traumatised by what he saw in the aftermath of October 7.

AP journalists attempted to reach Mr. Landau multiple times. While he answered initial inquiries, he was ultimately unreachable.

Almost immediately after October 7, Israel began allowing groups of journalists to visit the ravaged kibbutzim. On the trips, journalists found ZAKA volunteers onsite to be some of the most accessible sources of information and some shared what they thought they saw, even though, as Mr. Bukjin notes, “we are not forensics workers.”

“They pretend to know, sometimes very naively, what happened to the bodies they are dealing with,” said Gideon Aran, a sociologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who wrote a recent book on the organisation.

Mr. Bukjin said that the group’s usual media protocols faltered and that volunteers, who he said typically were vetted by him before being interviewed, were speaking to journalists directly. “The information is wild, is not controlled right,” said Peretz, the first-time volunteer. He said he took photos and video of what he saw even though he was told not to and was interviewed repeatedly about what he witnessed.

Other first responders also offered accounts — of babies beheaded, or hung from a clothesline, or killed together in a nursery, or placed in an oven – which were later debunked by Israeli reporters.

ZAKA is a private civilian body made up of 3,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish volunteer workers. Beyond its work in Israel, the group has also sent teams to international incidents, including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. As part of its role to ensure burial according to Jewish law, its volunteers scour crime scenes for remains in order to bury each body as completely as possible.

Aran, the sociologist, said October 7 was unlike anything the organisation had previously witnessed. ZAKA’s main experience with victim identification before October 7 was limited to distinguishing militant attackers from their victims, not determining who was a victim of sexual assault, Aran said.

After untrue accounts of sexual assault filtered into international media, the process of debunking them appeared, at times, to take centre stage in the global dispute over the facts of October 7. On social media, accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers question the very occurrence of sexual violence.

The loud debate belies a growing body of evidence supporting the claim that sexual assault took place that day, even as its scope remains difficult to ascertain.

The U.N. team investigating sexual violence said it saw “credible circumstantial information which may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence, including genital mutilation, sexualized torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

That included photos and videos showing a minimum of 20 corpses with clothes that had been torn, revealing private body parts, and 10 bodies with indications of bound wrists and or tied legs. No digital materials showed sexual violence in real time, the report said.

The investigators described the accounts that originated with Mr. Otmazgin and Mr. Landau to be “unfounded.” Regarding Mr. Otmazgin’s original account, they said the “crime scene had been altered by a bomb squad and the bodies moved, explaining the separation of the body of the girl from the rest of her family.”

Mr. Otmazgin said he publicly corrected himself after discovering what had transpired, including to the U.N. investigators he met. He showed the investigators — and later an AP reporter — photos and video, including one of a deceased woman who had a blood-speckled, flesh-coloured bulb in her genital area, as well as several bodies of women with blood near their genitals and another who appeared to have small sharp objects protruding from her upper thigh and above her genitals.

More evidence is emerging as time goes by. A released hostage has described facing sexual violence in captivity in an account to The New York Times, and a man at the music festival said he heard a woman screaming she was being raped.

On Monday, releasing arrest warrants for top Hamas and Israeli officials, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that hostages taken from Israel have been kept in inhumane conditions, and that some have been subject to sexual violence, including rape, while being held in captivity.”

The U.N. report shines a light on the issues that have contributed to the skepticism over sexual violence. It said there was “limited crime scene processing” and that some evidence of sexual assault may have been lost due to “the interventions of some inadequately trained volunteer first responders.” It also said global scrutiny of the accounts emerging from October 7 may have deterred survivors from coming forward.

In the fraught global discourse surrounding October 7 and the war it sparked, sexual violence has been a particular point of tension.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as prominent figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top technology executive Sheryl Sandberg, have called out what they saw as global indifference toward Israeli women who were sexually assaulted in the attack.

Some critics of Israel’s war, meanwhile, have raised questions about the weight of the evidence, using debunked testimonies, including from ZAKA volunteers, to do so. The site oct7factcheck.com, which says its aim is to combat “atrocity propaganda” that could “justify military or political actions,” has repeatedly challenged investigations in mainstream media about sexual violence.

The site, which is run by a loose coalition of tech industry employees supporting Palestinian rights, says it has not yet reached a conclusion on the occurrence of gender-based violence. It has alleged that ZAKA members are “behind many of the October 7 fabrications.” The site has also highlighted other debunked accounts, including about a baby found in an oven and a hostage giving birth in captivity.

Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a U.S. policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, said a long history of what he calls Israeli disinformation and propaganda has fueled global scepticism over the claims. The debunked ZAKA stories, he said, contributed to the sense that Israel exaggerated accounts of atrocities committed by Hamas to dehumanise Palestinians as its military continues its deadly offensive.

“Skepticism of all claims made by the Israeli military, a military that is being investigated for genocide at The Hague, are not only justified but should be encouraged,” he said. “That’s why Palestinians, and much of the international community, are asking for thorough scrutiny.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, a commentator on Israeli affairs, said those downplaying the atrocities committed by Hamas have seized on the debunked ZAKA accounts as “ammunition” to show that Israel fabricates or that October 7 wasn’t so bad, rather than examining all the available evidence to build a more comprehensive picture of what happened.

At the same time, any false accounts, even if produced without malice, lead to further polarisation and pulls the focus away from victims, she argues. “Every bit of misinformation, disinformation — good faith or bad faith, mistakes or lies — is extremely destructive.”

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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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More Palestinians flee as Israel pushes deeper into Rafah

The exodus of Palestinians from Gaza’s last refuge accelerated on May 12 as Israeli forces pushed deeper into the southern city of Rafah. Israel also pounded the territory’s devastated north, where some Hamas militants have regrouped in areas the military said it had cleared months ago.

Rafah is considered Hamas’ last stronghold. Some 3,00,000 of the more than 1 million civilians sheltering there have fled the city following evacuation orders from Israel, which says it must invade to dismantle Hamas and return scores of hostages taken from Israel in the October 7 attack that sparked the war.

Neighbouring Egypt issued its strongest objection yet to the Rafah offensive, saying it intends to formally join South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice alleging Israel is committing genocide in Gaza — an accusation Israel rejects. The Foreign Ministry statement cited “the worsening severity and scope of the Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians.”

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement that he cannot see how a full-scale invasion of Rafah can be reconciled with international humanitarian law.

Also Read | Israel strikes Gaza after fresh Rafah evacuation order

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated opposition to a major military assault on Rafah, and told CBS that Israel would “be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency” without an exit from Gaza and postwar governance plan.

Gaza has been left without a functioning government, leading to a breakdown in public order and allowing Hamas’s armed wing to reconstitute itself even in the hardest-hit areas. On Sunday, Hamas touted attacks against Israeli soldiers in Rafah and near Gaza City.

Israel has yet to offer a detailed plan for postwar governance in Gaza, saying only that it will maintain open-ended security control over the enclave of about 2.3 million Palestinians.

Internationally mediated talks over a cease-fire and hostage release appeared to be at a standstill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Memorial Day speech vowed to continue fighting until victory in memory of those killed in the war. But in Tel Aviv, hundreds of protesters stood outside military headquarters and raised candles during a minute-long siren marking the day’s start, demanding an immediate cease-fire deal to return the hostages.

Mr. Netanyahu has rejected postwar plans proposed by the United States for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza with support from Arab and Muslim countries. Those plans depend on progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state, which Israel’s government opposes.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, on the border with Egypt Gaza on May 10, 2024.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, on the border with Egypt Gaza on May 10, 2024.
| Photo Credit:
AP

The October 7 attack killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage. Militants still hold about 100 captives and the remains of more than 30.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence.

Palestinians reported heavy Israeli bombardment overnight in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp and other areas in northern Gaza, which has been largely isolated by Israeli forces for months. U.N. officials say there is a “full-blown famine” there.

Residents said Israeli warplanes and artillery also struck the Zeitoun area east of Gaza City, where troops have battled militants for over a week. They have called on tens of thousands of people to relocate to nearby areas.

OPINION | Irrational Israel: On the ceasefire proposal and Hamas

“It was a very difficult night,” said Abdel-Kareem Radwan, a 48-year-old from Jabaliya. He said they could hear intense and constant bombing since midday on Saturday. “This is madness.”

First responders with the Palestinian Civil Defence said they were unable to respond to multiple calls for help from both areas, as well as from Rafah.

In central Gaza, staff at the al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah said an Israeli strike killed four persons.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the top Israeli military spokesman, said forces were also operating in the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were heavily bombed in the war’s opening days.

Hamas’s military wing said it shelled Israeli special forces east of Jabaliya and fired mortar shells at troops and vehicles entering the Rafah border crossing area.

“Hamas’ regime cannot be toppled without preparing an alternative to that regime,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Israel’s Maariv daily, channeling the growing frustration felt by many Israelis more than seven months into the war. “The only people who can govern Gaza after the war are Gazans, with a lot of support and help from the outside.”

Rafah had been sheltering 1.3 million Palestinians, most of whom had fled fighting elsewhere. But Israel has now evacuated the eastern third of the city.

Most people are heading to the heavily damaged nearby city of Khan Younis or Muwasi, a coastal tent camp where some 450,000 people are already living in squalid conditions.

The U.N. has warned that a planned full-scale invasion would further cripple humanitarian operations and cause a surge in civilian deaths. The main aid entry points near Rafah are already affected. Israeli troops have captured the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, forcing it to shut down.

A senior Egyptian official told AP that Cairo has lodged protests with Israel, the United States and European governments, saying the offensive has put its decades-old peace treaty with Israel — a cornerstone of regional stability — at high risk. The official was not authorized to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he won’t provide offensive weapons to Israel for Rafah, and his administration says there is “reasonable” evidence that Israel had breached international law protecting civilians.

Israel rejects those allegations, saying it tries to avoid harming civilians. It blames Hamas for the high toll because the militants fight in dense, residential areas.

In the West Bank, where deadly violence has increased since the war began, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a man was shot dead by Israeli forces in Balata refugee camp in Nablus. The army said its forces responded with live fire after being shot at by militants in the camp.

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Hamas says studying new Israeli truce proposal, puts out new hostage video

Hamas said on April 27 it was studying Israel’s latest counterproposal for a Gaza ceasefire, a day after media reports said a delegation from mediator Egypt was in Israel trying to jump-start stalled negotiations.

The armed wing of Hamas also released video footage of two men held hostage in Gaza, identified by Israeli campaign group the Hostages and Missing Families Forum as Keith Siegel and Omri Miran.

Also read | The war on Gaza and America’s paradoxical role

The signs of fresh truce talks come after the United Nations warned that “famine thresholds in Gaza will be breached within the next six weeks” unless massive food assistance arrives.

Aid groups say Gaza’s already catastrophic humanitarian conditions would be worsened by Israel’s vow to attack Hamas fighters still in Rafah city in southernmost Gaza.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, is crowded with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by nearly seven months of war between Israel and the Islamist movement.

“We live in constant terror and fear of repeated displacement and invasion,” Nidaa Safi, 30, who fled Israeli strikes in the north and came to Rafah with her husband and children, told AFP.

The area comes under regular bombardment. Hospital officials said strikes in Rafah and elsewhere killed more than a dozen people overnight.

Among the dead were an entire family, their relative Mohammed Yussef said.

“Nobody left: the father, the mother, a girl and two boys” were killed when their house was targeted, he said.

Daily deaths

Khalil al-Hayya, deputy head of Hamas’s political arm in Gaza, said it had “received the official Zionist occupation response to the movement’s position, which was delivered to the Egyptian and Qatari mediators on April 13”.

In a statement, Hayya said Hamas “will study this proposal” before responding.

The movement has previously insisted on a permanent ceasefire, which Israel rejects.

Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been unsuccessfully trying to seal a new Gaza truce deal ever since a one-week halt to the fighting in November saw 80 Israeli hostages exchanged for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Al-Qahera News, which is linked to Egyptian intelligence services, reported “noticeable progress in bringing the views of the Egyptian and Israeli delegations closer”.

In early April, Hamas had said it was studying a proposal, after talks in Cairo, and Al-Qahera reported progress. Days later Israel and Hamas accused each other of undermining negotiations.

Dozens are dying in Gaza every day, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

The war began with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Summit in Saudi

Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 34,388 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, the health ministry said Saturday.

Israel estimates that 129 hostages seized by militants on October 7 are still being held in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Israeli demonstrators have intensified protests for their government to reach a deal that would free the captives, accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of prolonging the war.

The latest hostage video comes just three days after Hamas released another video showing hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin alive.

Both Mr. Siegel and Mr. Miran appeared to speak under duress in the video.

“It’s time to reach a deal that will get us out of here safe and healthy… Keep protesting, so that there will be a deal now,” Miran said in the footage that appeared to have been recorded earlier this week.

U.S. citizen Siegel (64) broke down as he talked of their captivity. “We are in danger here, there are bombs, it is stressful and scary,” he said.

In its report on Friday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said “the only way to halt famine” is by “massive and consistent food assistance that can be delivered freely and safely”.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said this month that Israel planned to “flood Gaza” with aid, but the OCHA report cited continued “access constraints”.

A special meeting of the World Economic Forum set to begin Sunday in Saudi Arabia will have a strong focus on the war, including the humanitarian situation, organisers said.

A Royal Navy support ship has sailed from Cyprus to house hundreds of US army personnel building a jetty for aid sent by sea, a British defence source said.

Israeli Army spokesman Major Nadav Shoshani told a press briefing the military hoped the pier would be ready by early May.

Cyprus said the aid-laden Jennifer — which had previously returned after an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers in Gaza — is now sailing back to the territory.

In Turkey, however, a “Freedom Flotilla” aimed at delivering aid was blocked after being denied use of two ships flying the Guinea-Bissau flag, with organisers blaming Israeli pressure on the West African nation.

Lebanon, West Bank deaths

The Gaza war has led to increased violence between Israel and Iran’s proxies and allies, in particular Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon killed three people on Saturday, including two members of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah said it fired “drones and guided missiles” at a base in northern Israel in response.

Israel’s military said its Iron Dome air defence system intercepted a “suspicious aerial target” and that fire was returned at the source of several anti-tank missiles launched from Lebanon.

Since October 7, more than 250 Hezbollah fighters and dozens of civilians have been killed in Lebanon, according to an AFP tally.

Israel says 11 soldiers and nine civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

Violence has also soared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians near the city of Jenin on Saturday, the army and Palestinian media reported.

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Hamas official says group would lay down its weapons if a two-state solution is implemented

Khalil al-Hayya, a high-ranking official with the Palestinian militant group, who has represented it in negotiations for a ceasefire and hostage exchange deal, speaks during an interview for The Associated Press, in Istanbul, Turkey on April 24, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

A top Hamas political official told The Associated Press the Islamic militant group is willing to agree to a truce of five years or more with Israel and that it would lay down its weapons and convert into a political party if an independent Palestinian state is established along pre-1967 borders.

The comments by Khalil al-Hayya in an interview on April 24 came amid a stalemate in months of cease-fire talks. The suggestion that Hamas would disarm appeared to be a significant concession by the militant group officially committed to Israel’s destruction.

But it’s unlikely Israel would consider such a scenario. It has vowed to crush Hamas following the deadly Oct. 7 attacks that triggered the war, and its current leadership is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Al-Hayya, a high-ranking Hamas official who has represented the Palestinian militants in negotiations for a cease-fire and hostage exchange, struck a sometimes defiant and other times conciliatory tone.

Speaking to the AP in Istanbul, Al-Hayya said Hamas wants to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation, headed by the rival Fatah faction to form a unified government for Gaza and the West Bank. He said Hamas would accept “a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the return of Palestinian refugees in accordance with the international resolutions”, along Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

If that happens, he said, the group’s military wing would dissolve.

“All the experiences of people who fought against occupiers, when they became independent and obtained their rights and their state, what have these forces done? They have turned into political parties and their defending fighting forces have turned into the national army,” he said.

Over the years, Hamas has sometimes moderated its public position with respect to the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But its political programme still officially “rejects any alternative to the full liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea” — referring to the area reaching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which includes lands that now make up Israel.

Al-Hayya did not say whether his apparent embrace of a two-state solution would amount to an end to the Palestinian conflict with Israel or an interim step toward the group’s stated goal of destroying Israel.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel or the Palestinian Authority — the internationally recogniaed self-ruled government that Hamas drove out when it seized Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections. After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority was left with administering semi-autonomous pockets of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority hopes to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. While the international community overwhelmingly supports such a two-state solution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government rejects it.

The war in Gaza has dragged on for nearly seven months and cease-fire negotiations have stalled. The war began with the deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which Hamas-led militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Militants dragged some 250 hostages into the enclave. The ensuing Israeli bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to local health authorities, and displaced some 80% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million.

Israel is now preparing for an offensive in the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians have fled to.

Israel says it has dismantled most of the initial two dozen Hamas battalions since the start of the war, but that the four remaining ones are holed up in Rafah. Israel argues that a Rafah offensive is necessary to achieve victory over Hamas.

Al-Hayya said such an offensive would not succeed in destroying Hamas. He said contacts between the political leadership outside and military leadership inside Gaza are “uninterrupted” by the war and “contacts, decisions and directions are made in consultation” between the two groups.

Israeli forces “have not destroyed more than 20% of [Hamas’] capabilities, neither human nor in the field,” he asserted. “If they can’t finish [Hamas] off, what is the solution? The solution is to go to consensus.”

In November, a weeklong cease-fire saw the release of more than 100 hostages in exchange for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. But talks for a longer-term truce and release of the remaining hostages are now frozen, with each side accusing the other of intransigence. Key interlocutor Qatar has said in recent days that it is undertaking a “reassessment” of its role as mediator.

Most of Hamas’ top political officials, previously based in Qatar, have left the Gulf country in the past week and travelled to Turkey, where Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday. Al-Hayya denied a permanent move of the group’s main political office is in the works and said Hamas wants to see Qatar continue in its capacity as mediator in the talks.

Israeli and U.S. officials have accused Hamas of not being serious about a deal.

Al-Hayya denied this, saying Hamas has made concessions regarding the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants released in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages. He said the group does not know exactly how many hostages remain in Gaza and are still alive.

But he said Hamas will not back down from its demands for a permanent cease-fire and full withdrawal of Israeli troops, both of which Israel has balked at. Israel says it will continue military operations until Hamas is definitively defeated and will retain a security presence in Gaza afterwards.

“If we are not assured the war will end, why would I hand over the prisoners?” the Hamas leader said of the remaining hostages.

Al-Hayya also implicitly threatened that Hamas would attack Israeli or other forces who might be stationed around a floating pier the U.S. is scrambling to build along Gaza’s coastline to deliver aid by sea.

“We categorically reject any non-Palestinian presence in Gaza, whether at sea or on land, and we will deal with any military force present in these places, Israeli or otherwise … as an occupying power,” he said.

Al-Hayya said Hamas does not regret the Oct. 7 attacks, despite the destruction it has brought down on Gaza and its people. He denied that Hamas militants had targeted civilians during the attacks — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and said the operation succeeded in its goal of bringing the Palestinian issue back to the world’s attention.

And, he said, Israeli attempts to eradicate Hamas would ultimately fail to prevent future Palestinian armed uprisings.

“Let’s say that they have destroyed Hamas. Are the Palestinian people gone?” he asked.

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In the Israel-Hamas war, an emblematic battle for Al Shifa hospital

Fighting raged around Gaza City’s main Al Shifa hospital on Friday in the 12th day of operations by the Israeli military around the hospital complex. It is the second time in six months that Israeli forces have sought to oust Hamas fighters from the area.

Fighting around the Al-Shifa hospital in the Gaza Strip continued on Friday in what is now the Israeli army’s longest-running “targeted operation” in its war against Hamas. This is Israel’s second assault on this hospital complex, the largest and oldest in the Palestinian enclave, since the start of the war on October 7.

Around a thousand Israeli soldiers, backed by tanks, entered the Al Shifa hospital complex on March 18, in the second offensive to “cleanse” the hospital of fighters from Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad.

A tactical success

This second incursion should have been swift, since the Israeli army had already announced in November, during the first assault, that it had “emptied” the premises of Hamas combatants. The first operation was also supposed to have enabled Israel to block a maze of tunnels under the hospital used by Palestinian fighters.


Fighting has rocked the Gaza City district around Al Shifa Hospital since March 18, 2024. © France Médias Monde graphics studio

 

Not only has the current Israeli attack dragged on, but fighting has also spread to the area around the gigantic hospital complex. Hamas was able to launch 70 attacks against Israeli forces from both inside and outside the hospital in recent days, according to the Institute for the Study of War, an American think-tank which works with the Critical Threats project to provide daily summaries of events in the Israel-Hamas war.

Despite intense fighting in a supposedly “cleared” area, the Israeli army presented the operation as a success. It stressed that it had been able to “eliminate dozens” of enemy fighters and locate new “infrastructure and weapons caches” in the hospital.

“The actual operation was a tactical success,” confirms Veronika Poniscjakova, a specialist in international security issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. The Israeli army “let Hamas think that they would attack elsewhere – in the central refugee camps of the Strip – and when Hamas returned to Shifa, the Israelis closed in on them”, and took many prisoners, according to Ahron Bregman, a specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at King’s College London.

The Israeli action enabled Israel to recover “extremely valuable intelligence” about their enemy, as suggested by the images and videos of the interrogations that the Israeli army has made public, notes Omri Brinner, an analyst and specialist in Middle East geopolitics at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, Italy.

The Israel-Hamas PR war

The operation’s progress appears to be slow, as the Israeli army seeks to avoid the media backlash associated with a previous operation launched at Al Shifa. Last November, Israeli-initiated fighting at the hospital caused the death of more than 20 patients, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The assault also led to a health disaster for Gazans, who were deprived of the enclave’s most important hospital complex. Washington openly expressed concern to its Israeli ally about civilians being caught in the crossfire at a hospital.

The current Israeli operation at Al Shifa has once again attracted international attention. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), described the conditions in the hospital as “totally inhumane” for patients and health personnel.

But in the current offensive, “the Israelis have been far more sophisticated in the way they are presenting this operation” and “they are using a much more precise way to message to the world that the threat inside the complex is real and credible,” says Clive Jones, a specialist in Israel and the Middle East at Durham University in the UK. The army is using drone footage of gun battles and photos of the discovery of weapons caches to “try to convince international opinion that they had legitimate reasons for returning to fight in this hospital”, adds Jones.

Israel also needs to prove it has the ability to carry out this type of highly sensitive operation with as few civilian casualties as possible. The precedent of the US-Iraq war in 2003 shows that “as soon as an army leaves an area, insurgents seek to return”, says Bregman. This view is shared by other analysts. “We can expect Hamas to do the same thing in other hospitals, but also in schools or refugee camps where there are civilian populations”, notes Shahin Modarres, an independent expert on international security and the Middle East.

By taking its time in the Al Shifa operation, the Israeli army is “signaling to Hamas that it will target it even if it harbours in places considered safe havens, such as hospitals, UNRWA compounds, mosques and schools”, says Brinner. At the same time, it’s trying to prove to the international community that it knows how to do it” with a level of restraint.

Strategic failure

But if this current battle looks like an “operational success, it’s also a strategic failure for Israel”, says Jones.

After the fighting in northern Gaza at the start of the war, and the first assault on the Al Shifa hospital, it must be worrying for the Israeli military leadership “that Hamas still had the possibility to operate” from the hospital complex with “so many troops”, explains Poniscjakova.

Hamas is still able to carry out guerrilla operations aimed at “frustrating Israeli soldiers, who are forced to retrace their steps, while seeking to distract them long enough in the hope that international pressure will push Israel to accept a ceasefire“, notes Modarres.

The fact that Hamas adopted this strategy was certainly expected, say the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24. But the intensity of the fighting around the hospital “says something about Hamas’s ability as a guerilla organisation to regroup, and Israel might have underestimated it”, says Jones.

According to Jones, the renewed battle for Al Shifa illustrates the political flaw in the Israeli advance into Gaza – the lack of any plan for how the territory would be governed in areas where the Israeli army is not present.

“It’s a political issue because Netanyahu’s strategy has left a governance vacuum enabling a quick Hamas reorganisation in the north” of the enclave.

“You have to remember that the level of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip has been vastly reduced,” Jones adds.

“It’s a classic chicken and egg problem,” explains Poniscjakova. “What should come first: governance or destroying Hamas?”

Israel’s choice, she says is to either push for a new governance structure in northern Gaza and other areas “cleared” of Hamas control, or to prioritise an assault on Hamas in southern Gaza and then try to negotiate an overall political deal with the Palestinians.

For now, the consensus of analysts seems to be that the fighting at Al Shifa shows that the Israeli army is still far from achieving its main objective: the destruction of Hamas.

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Israel bombs Gaza as UN chief calls for end to ‘horror and starvation’

Air and artillery strikes pounded targets in Gaza Sunday as UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a surge of aid into the besieged territory he said was stalked by “horror and starvation”.

Other world leaders added their voices to that of Guterres in appealing for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to Israeli plans to send in troops against militants in Gaza‘s crowded southern city of Rafah.

Talks aimed at a deal for a truce and release of hostages were taking place in Qatar but the heads of the Israeli and US spy agencies involved in the negotiations have now left the Gulf emirate for consultations, an informed source told AFP.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said Sunday that another 84 people had been killed over the previous 24 hours, raising the total death toll in the territory during nearly six months of war to 32,226, most of them women and children.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to reporters at El-Arish International Airport in Egypt, visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing and urged an end to Gaza’s ‘nightmare’ © Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

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

Israel has vowed to destroy the militants, who also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

Palestinian children, some with heads bandaged, others more severely wounded in the latest bombardments, were rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings and rushed to Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah.

Guterres, on a visit to Egypt, urged an end to the “non-stop nightmare” endured by Gaza’s 2.4 million people in the territory’s worst-ever war.

“Looking at Gaza, it almost appears that the four horsemen of war, famine, conquest and death are galloping across it,” the UN secretary-general said, visiting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

People sit together for a mass 'iftar' (fast-breaking) meal organised by members of the Barbara refugee camp during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah
People sit together for a mass ‘iftar’ (fast-breaking) meal organised by members of the Barbara refugee camp during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

“The whole world recognises that it’s past time to silence the guns and ensure an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

With the United Nations warning of imminent famine in Gaza, Guterres urged Israel to allow in more humanitarian aid via the Rafah border crossing whose Egyptian side he visited, saying trucks were “blocked”.

On social media, Israel’s military responded that the UN should scale up its logistics and “stop blaming Israel for its own failures”.

‘Extreme danger’

Combat has flared for almost a week in and around Gaza’s biggest hospital complex, Gaza City’s Al-Shifa.

The UN on Friday had reported “intensive exchanges of fire” involving Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in the area.

An Israeli tank moving along the border with the Gaza Strip
An Israeli tank moving along the border with the Gaza Strip © JACK GUEZ / AFP/File

The Hamas government media office said 190 people had been killed in the Al-Shifa operation, and 30 nearby buildings destroyed.

The army said its forces had killed more than 170 militants and detained about 480 militants affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is fighting alongside Hamas.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Sunday that Israeli forces were also besieging Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis city.

The Red Crescent said messages broadcast from drones demanded that everyone in Al-Amal leave naked, while forces blocked the gates of the hospital with dirt barriers.

“All of our crews are currently under extreme danger and cannot move at all,” the Red Crescent added.

In response to AFP’s request for comment, the military said it was operating in the Al-Amal area but “not currently… in the hospitals”.

A Palestinian boy sits between a blood-stained mattress and body bags at Rafah's Al-Najjar hospital
A Palestinian boy sits between a blood-stained mattress and body bags at Rafah’s Al-Najjar hospital © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

The military said the operation began with air force strikes on about 40 targets, including military compounds and tunnels.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II stressed in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron the need for “an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and protecting innocent civilians”, the palace said.

He also called for more aid to reach Gaza as his country’s planes again airdropped relief supplies with aircraft from the United States, Egypt, Germany and Singapore.

Munitions

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

Prior to taking off for an official visit to the United States, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his focus will include “preserving the qualitative military edge” and “our ability to obtain platforms and munitions”.

Northern Gaza Strip and Al-Shifa hospital
Northern Gaza Strip and Al-Shifa hospital © Nalini LEPETIT-CHELLA, Jean-Michel CORNU, Hervé BOUILLY / AFP

He is set to meet Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and other senior US officials.

A source of tension between the two countries is Israel’s plan to extend its ground invasion into Rafah city on the Egyptian border, where around 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge, mostly in overcrowded shelters.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a major ground operation in Rafah was not necessary to deal with Hamas, and “there is no place” for civilians there to get out of harm’s way.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a coalition including religious and ultra-nationalist parties, has vowed to go ahead with a Rafah invasion even without Washington’s support.

Macron, in a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday, repeated his opposition to any Israeli military operation against Hamas in Rafah and said forced transfer of Rafah’s population would be “a war crime”.

Israeli settlers dressed in Purim costumes on Al-Shuhada Street, which is largely closed to Palestinians in the divided city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim
Israeli settlers dressed in Purim costumes on Al-Shuhada Street, which is largely closed to Palestinians in the divided city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim © HAZEM BADER / AFP

Macron urged Israel to open all crossing points into Gaza, which could help the aid flow, and said he intended to bring a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for “an immediate and lasting ceasefire”.

Russia and China on Friday vetoed a US-led draft resolution for the Council to support “the imperative” of a ceasefire.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was on Sunday to begin a visit to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Before leaving Germany she appealed for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.

The latest negotiations had “focused on details and a ratio for the exchange of hostages and prisoners”, a source briefed on the talks said, adding that technical teams remained in Qatar.

(AFP)

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How charity ship Open Arms is delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza

The ship Opens Arms left Cyprus for the Gaza coast on October 12 with 200 tonnes of food supplies, the first ship to sail as part of a maritime aid corridor initiated by Cyprus, with the support of the European Union, the UK and the US. Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the charities leading the effort felt they couldn’t wait for the US military to complete a pier to deliver aid.

The 200 tonnes of food supplies transported by the Open Arms is already bringing hope to the people of Gaza. Some Gazans even rushed to the beach near Gaza City on Sunday, hoping to see the ship and its desperately needed cargo arrive, AFP reported.

Aid agencies have warned of looming famine in the Palestinian territory of 2.4 million inhabitants.

Israel has imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza since the start of its war with Hamas five months ago.  Given the humanitarian emergency that has resulted, the EU decided to push for a maritime aid route via Cyprus, the EU country closest to Gaza.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said it was the first time a ship had been authorized to deliver aid directly to Gaza since 2005 and that the EU would work with “smaller ships” until the US military completes work on its floating port off the Gazan coast.

Open Arms, a Spanish charity, is partnered by the US charity World Central Kitchen (WCK), founded by the Spanish-American restaurateur José Andrés. Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said that WCK’s teams in Gaza were “constructing a dock” to unload the Open Arms’s cargo. The charities have kept the location of the landing point secret for security reasons.

Under Israeli land, air, and sea blockade for sixteen years, Gaza has no functioning port.

“We have been working on this technical project for several weeks,” explained Lanuza.  

“We had to be imaginative and find a way to overcome all these obstacles related to the landing site that will be done from the platform we are transporting,” she said.

The barge, a floating platform carrying 200 tonnes of food, is currently being towed by the humanitarian ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. In a video filmed before the fleet’s departure from Cyprus and posted on X, the NGO WCK explains: “You can see behind me, we have this barge. It’s about 200 tonnes that we are currently loading with all kinds of food aid. Once it reaches its destination, it will be lifted by a crane. Then we will transport the supplies to the northern part of the Gaza Strip to help those in need at this time.”

Construction of a jetty in Gaza

WCK says its teams in Gaza are working “day and night” on the construction of a pier, leveraging the extensive experience it has providing humanitarian aid worldwide. “In Gaza, it already manages around 60 kitchens run by local residents, mainly women, who cook and prepare meals for those in need,” reports the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

However, “the influx of large quantities of goods will require special preparations –  warehouses, transportation, security, and supervision of distribution – which have not yet been organized”,  Haaretz points out.

Security is of the uppermost in people’s minds, after the tragedy on March 1 in which over 115 Palestinians were killed during a humanitarian aid delivery, crushed in a stampede and also hit by Israeli gunfire.

“We have to be careful. We have every guarantee that everything will be fine, but the reality in Gaza is changing all the time,” admits Lanuza. “We’re trying to avoid any danger to the population, of course.”

Approved by Israel

The aid corridor, supported by Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates, has received approval from Israel. The ship’s cargo was inspected in advance by Israeli military personnel in Larnaca to ensure it did not contain any military equipment, weapons, or materials that could be used for military purposes, according to Haaretz.

Israel has also committed to participating in the construction project of a pier promised by the United States on the Gaza coast. The Pentagon specified that building this structure will take up to 60 days and likely involve over 1,000 soldiers. The temporary port “could provide over two million meals per day to the citizens of Gaza”, according to Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryde.

A US Navy ship has departed from the United States with the necessary equipment for the construction of the pier. The Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Admiral  Daniel Hagari, stated that Israel is “coordinating the establishment” of this infrastructure.

Israel’s Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant, posting on X, said that aid from the maritime corridor “will help to achieve one of the main goals of the war: The collapse of Hamas rule. We will make sure that the aid goes to those who need it, and not to those who don’t.”

Israel accuses the Palestinian movement, which took control in Gaza in 2007, of diverting humanitarian aid within the territory.

A second humanitarian cargo ship in the starting blocks

The construction of a safe, temporary port should help ensure the arrival of aid by sea.

According to Gaza’s ministry of health, 25 people, mostly children, have already died from malnutrition and dehydration, as massive shortages leave the enclave on the brink of famine.

Open Arms is already preparing a second humanitarian aid ship from Cyprus with a much larger cargo.  Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said Tuesday that “if all goes according to plan… we have already put in place the mechanism for a second and much bigger cargo.

“And then we’ll be working towards making this a more systematic exercise with increased volumes,” he added.

The UN believes that sending aid by sea and increasing airdrops of food cannot replace the need for access to Gaza by road. While welcoming the news of the first humanitarian ship, Jens Laerke, the spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reiterated on Tuesday that it was “not a substitute for the overland transport of food and other emergency aid into Gaza and particularly northern Gaza. It cannot make up for that”.

The airdrop of parcels over the city of Gaza on March 9 resulted in the death of five people and the injury of 10, according to a hospital source. The Jordanian and American militaries denied that their aircraft were involved in the incident. Belgium, Egypt, France, and the Netherlands are also conducting aid drops in the territory.

(With AFP)

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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Israeli ground offensive in Rafah ‘aimed at making Gaza uninhabitable’

Israel has announced plans to launch a full-scale offensive on the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza strip, claiming it is the only way to “completely destroy” Hamas. But according to former French military officer and author Guillaume Ancel, a large-scale military operation in the city that is now host to half of Gaza’s population is of no strategic interest. In his analysis, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s only goal is to make the Palestinian enclave “uninhabitable”.

The countdown has begun for Rafah. Israel repeated on Sunday its threats of carrying out a major ground attack against the southern Gaza city before the start of Ramadan: the holy month in Islam, during which Muslims fast, is expected to begin around March 10. The perspective of a ground operation in the city, which was once considered “safe” for civilians, is fuelling international concern about the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the city.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a former Israeli defence minister currently serving on Netanyahu’s war cabinet, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday. “Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages and the civilians of Gaza can celebrate the feast of Ramadan,” he added.

Having so far ignored the warnings of his Western allies, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems more determined than ever to continue the war against Hamas, reaffirming on February 9 that he was aiming for “total victory”. On February 17 he said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas.

“Benny Gantz’s statements reflect a rift within the war cabinet,” French military expert Guillaume Ancel said in an interview with FRANCE 24. “While the extremists led by Netanyahu want to go all the way, those who are more moderate, like Benny Gantz, want to leave the door open for negotiations, which are currently going very badly.”

Pressure ‘on partners involved in negotiations’

According to a Hamas official quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz, the arrival of the movement’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo on Tuesday did not mean there had been any breakthrough in the negotiations.

Organised by Egypt and Qatar, several rounds of talks were held in Cairo earlier this month but failed to reach an agreement on a truce and the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, at least 30 of whom have reportedly died, out of the 257 kidnapped on October 7.

Read moreWho are the remaining Gaza hostages?

Talks have stalled over Hamas’s demands, described as “delusional” by Binyamin Netanyahu. These include a ceasefire, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, an end to the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory and safe shelter for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.

“More than on Hamas, this is about putting pressure on the partners involved in the negotiations, specially Egypt, Qatar and the US”, says Tewfik Hamel, a researcher in military history at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, who sees Israel’s ultimatum as a call for the Islamist movement to capitulate.

Fears of ‘carnage’

Should new negotiations fail, the prospect of a military ground offensive in overcrowded Rafah raises the worst fears for the trapped Palestinian refugees. Nearly 30,000 people have so far been killed in the conflict, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“In an area of 10 square kilometres, there are almost 1.5 million Palestinians, so this will necessarily lead to a massacre of the civilian population,” says Hamel. “Attacking the town of Rafah, where two-thirds of Gaza’s population is now squeezed, would mean committing carnage,” agrees Ancel.

The former soldier points out that the town has already been subjected to daily bombardment designed “to prepare the territory” for a ground attack. On Thursday, fresh Israeli bombardment of the city flattened a mosque and destroyed homes in what residents called one of their worst nights yet, killing at least 97 people and wounding 130 others in the last 24 hours, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Most victims were still under rubble or in areas rescuers could not reach.

“We can’t even begin to imagine what this would mean for all these displaced people. A military offensive is going to create even more chaos,” Jamie MacGoldrick, the UN’s Middle East coordinator, told FRANCE 24.

Reports from humanitarian organisations have been increasingly alarming on the situation in the Gaza Strip, where 2.2 million people could face starvation. According to UN agencies, food and drinking water have become “extremely scarce”, and 90 percent of the enclave’s young children now suffer from infectious diseases.

Watch moreThe desperate search for food and water in Gaza

Netanyahu has said Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave Rafah before the assault, but never mentioned to which destination. In the event of an offensive, Palestinian civilians would have to try to force their way across the closed border with Egypt.

Egypt doesn’t want refugees in Sinai because the authorities don’t know whether Israel would later accept their return to the Gaza Strip, and Egypt doesn’t want to host the refugees out of fears some might end up being Hamas fighters, even if authorities don’t explicitly state it,” explains Bruno Daroux, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor.

But recently Cairo seemed to be preparing for this scenario. According to reports by the Wall Street Journal and an Egyptian NGO, Cairo is constructing a walled camp in the Sinai Peninsula to receive displaced Palestinian civilians from the Gaza Strip. After satellite images appeared to show extensive construction work along the border, the reports claim the compound could accommodate more than 100,000 people on the Egyptian side, parallel to the border with Gaza.

Ancel sees this flight from Rafah as the real objective of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. “Rafah is the only urban centre that has not been destroyed by the Israeli army. The government therefore wants to complete the destruction of the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure to make it uninhabitable. Netanyahu’s aim is to empty the Gaza Strip of Palestinians under the guise of fighting Hamas,” says the former officer, who believes that “a terrorist organisation cannot be destroyed by a military offensive”.

Destruction rendering ‘return of civilians impossible’

“The current Israeli government rejects the creation of a Palestinian state. From that point of view, the most reasonable option is to drive the Palestinians out of the territory,” says Hamel. “However, the attachment of the Gazans to the territory remains strong, because they know that as soon as there is a displacement of the population, the possibility of a return completely ceases to exist.”

As well as farmlands, almost 40 percent of the buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed by January 17, an Israeli study revealed. According to satellite data analysis obtained by the BBC, the actual figure is higher. That analysis suggests between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings across the whole Gaza Strip have been damaged or destroyed – meaning between 50 and 61 percent of Gaza’s buildings.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk on February 8 accused the Israeli army of committing a “war crime” in its reported destruction of buildings within one kilometre of the barrier between the enclave and Israel in order to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza itself.

Read moreGaza: More than 40% of buildings destroyed in the ‘buffer zone’ Israel plans to create

Turk said the destruction “appears to be aimed at, or has the effect of, rendering the return of civilians to these areas impossible,” adding Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime”, he said in a statement.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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