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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France under pressure to suspend military sales to Israel as war in Gaza grinds on

NGOs and leftist members of the opposition have increased the pressure on France’s government to reconsider arms sales to Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza and follow in the footsteps of other European nations that made moves to suspend military exports over concerns about the humanitarian situation on the ground. 

It was Ramadan, and another war was raging in Gaza.

In July 2014, 8-year-old Afnan Shuheibar, her 16-year-old brother Oday, and her three cousins Basel, Jihad and Wassim – ages 8 to 11 – went up to the roof of the Shuheibar home in Gaza City to feed the pigeons when they were struck by a missile.

It was fired by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but what helped guide it to the Shuheibars’ home was a small black position sensor around 2 centimetres long lodged deep inside the missile. On it were three words, with some letters partially erased: “EUROFARAD PARIS FRANCE”.  

Wassim and Jihad were killed instantly, and Afnan died in her father’s arms on the way to the hospital.

In 2016, the Shuheibar family filed a legal suit against Eurofarad. The company has since been bought by Exxelia Technologies, which is now facing charges of complicity in war crimes in France. (Exxelia itself was recently bought by the US group HEICO but is still headquartered in Paris.)

The first complaint was dismissed, but the family lodged another in 2018. A specialised department looking at crimes against humanity opened an investigation on suspicion of “complicity with war crimes” at a Paris court, and last summer several members of the Shuheibar family were heard.

The court will hear Exxelia’s side next, the family’s lawyer, Joseph Breham, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

His law firm is in touch with the Shuheibar family on a near-weekly basis. Several of them – in addition to investigators working on the case – have been wounded since the Israel-Hamas war started in early October, “to the extent that we wondered at one point whether or not the [Israeli] army was targeting them specifically”, Breham told FRANCE 24. 

The Shuheibar case is not unique. Other French defence companies – including Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – are facing charges of “complicity in war crimes” over weapons sales reportedly made to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which has spearheaded a regional coalition to fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But in the context of the current war in Gaza, and following the provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last month and the pending ruling – which could have profound repercussions for international jurisprudence – the Shuheibar case raises some lingering questions. 

Grilling in parliament

It remains unclear whether French companies continue to export weapons or any “dual-use” equipment to Israel that can be used in a military context, or whether French companies have reviewed any export licenses that were authorised before the latest war began.

The head of Amnesty International in France, Jean-Claude Samouiller, published an open letter this week addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, urging the suspension of all weapons sales and military equipment to Israel.

MPs from the far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise or LFI) party have repeatedly grilled members of the government over continuing French military exports to Israel.

These calls have intensified over the past week. Mathilde Panot, the president of the LFI parliamentary group, asked Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné during a February 15 session in parliament whether France was arming Israel and called for a suspension of any such sales. “Has France continued providing weapons to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu? Mister minister, can you say with certainty that no French military component is being used in Gaza in any war crime that is being committed? When will you declare an arms embargo?” she asked, adding: “[Charles] de Gaulle did it [in 1967]. Emmanuel Macron must do it.”

She also urged him to provide a list of weapons and other equipment provided to Israel. “Concerning weapons, I will revert back to you to give you a number, because I don’t have it here,” Séjourné replied.

It was then French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s turn to be questioned. In a written response to a question submitted by LFI MP Aurélien Saintoul, Lecornu said that France does not export “weapons, strictly speaking, but rather elementary components”.

Saintoul sits on the parliamentary defence commission. He repeatedly asked to question Lecornu, to no avail, prior to submitting his questions in writing.

When weapons are authorised for export, Lecornu said, they “are intended purely for defensive purposes”, citing the example of a type of missile used by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system.

Lecornu went on to say that the respect for human rights and international humanitarian law exhibited by the destination country “are fully taken into account” when reviewing arms exports. Current assessments “have not led to a full suspension of the flow of military exports since 7 October 2023”, referring to the launch of the Israeli army response to the Hamas attack in southern Israel.

In an emailed response to FRANCE 24, the defence ministry stressed that all requests for military equipment exports were subjected to “robust checks”. The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for specific comment on military exports to Israel.

Thomas Portes, another MP from LFI, last week launched a petition calling for transparency on the issue and urging the authorities to stop exporting military equipment to Israel. The government’s responses are “never precise, they never include any numbers … and so there is a kind of omerta surrounding this arms issue”, Portes said in a telephone interview on Monday.

“At the very least, I want there to be a public debate in France on whether today we accept, yes or no – as MPs, but beyond this, do citizens accept that France delivers weapons to the Israeli state in light of what the Israeli army is committing in the Gaza Strip?”

“I wouldn’t want us to be the last European country to commit itself to not supplying arms to Israel,” he said. France, Germany and the UK continue to supply Israel whereas Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium have moved to suspend arms sales.

Transparency

But obtaining transparency and establishing whether or not French companies are still exporting any weapons or dual-use equipment to the state of Israel is not an easy question to resolve.

Any export of military equipment by a French or France-based company must be vetted by the Inter-ministerial commission for war materials exports (CIEEMG).

Exxelia said in emailed responses sent on Wednesday that the “passive electronic components” it produces usually constitute a tiny part of far larger products, and can, for instance, be used to manufacture a “(Magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a 5G antenna or a radar”.

“Exxelia complies strictly with the laws in all the countries where it operates. Sales of dual-use equipment are subjected to strict regulations that the company applies scrupulously,” it added.

But as the Shuheibars’ lawyer Breham pointed out, decisions issued by the CIEEMG are protected by what is known as the “défense secret ” – meaning they are confidential – and, by law, the CIEEMG is not required to provide any explanation for its decisions.

Every year, the government must under French law release a report to the parliament detailing any such exports. The French authorities must also report annually to the secretary-general of the international Arms Trade Treaty.

But Breham dismissed these reports as “a load of hogwash … intended to play to the gallery”.

“The categories are extremely lax … for example, if you say you exported a specific kind of artillery shell, it is not the same thing if these shells end up in a CAESAR cannon, which is extremely precise, or if they end up in ordinary cannons,” he said. Moreover, since the parliamentary report does not specify the destination country for each piece of equipment, Brehem dismissed it as “absolutely useless”.

In the latest report submitted to the French parliament, one number does, however, stand out: €207.6 million in equipment sold to Israel over the past 10 years.

Breham dismissed the idea of declaring an arms embargo, advocated by LFI, arguing that it is the remit of the United Nations Security Council. But there is still room for the French authorities to take action, he argues.

“At the very least, I think it would be a good thing if France were to strongly declare that, number one, it is in favour of a total freeze on weapons exports to Israel and number two, that it is in favour of very tight restrictions on exports to Israel of double-use equipment, taking into consideration the fact that it is very easy to circumvent [these restrictions].”

As often, though, the devil is in the details. Military equipment export contracts take years to be put into place, he said. If in that time, concerns arise about international humanitarian law violations, then under article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty, the exporting country must review its export authorisations.

“But that’s the theory,” he said.

Whether or not the Shuheibar family could ever win their case is uncertain. According to international law expert Pierre-Emmanuel Dupont, there is no such legal precedent in France.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, he evoked the case against Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – which is still pending.

He also cited the case against French cement company Lafarge, which is facing charges of complicity in crimes against humanity over alleged payoffs made to the Islamic State group and other jihadists to keep its factory running during the Syrian civil war.

Bringing the Lafarge case set a kind of precedent, Dupont said, although that case is also still awaiting a verdict.



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Israeli strikes kill 13 in Rafah as Palestinians start fleeing area

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, has crammed into the Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah.

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Two Israeli airstrikes on Rafah overnight killed at least 13 people, including nine members of the same family, according to hospital officials and relatives.

The number of Palestinians killed during the war in Gaza has surpassed 28,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. A quarter of Gaza’s residents are starving. About 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and around 250 abducted in Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that sparked the war.

The overnight strikes came after US President Joe Biden once again cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against moving forward with a military operation into Gaza’s southernmost city without a “credible and executable plan” to protect around 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering there.

However, Israel’s defence minister said the country is “thoroughly planning” its promised ground invasion of Rafah, and Netanyahu vowed early Friday to reject “international dictates” on a long-term resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. 

France and the EU have long advocated for a two-state solution in the Middle East through negotiations. But, with talks long stalled and Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza deepening, some European nations are now expressing support to recognising a Palestinian state sooner.

Macron said Friday at a meeting in Paris with Jordan’s King Abdullah, ‘’Recognising a Palestinian state is not a taboo for France.”

“We owe it to Palestinians, whose aspirations have been trampled on for too long. We owe it to Israelis, who lived through the worst antisemitic massacre of our time. We owe it to a region that is seeking to rise above those who promote chaos and seed revenge,” he added.

Macron did not give any details on when and what conditions under which France might reconise a Palestinian state, and it would come by surprise for France to make such a decision independently. Nonetheless, France holds significant diplomatic weight as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Palestinians fleeing Rafah

Israel has identified Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza and vowed to continue its offensive there. An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, has crammed into the city, most of them displaced people who fled fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Israel has said it will evacuate the civilians before attacking, though international aid officials have said there is nowhere to go due to the vast devastation left behind by the offensive.

Palestinians are reportedly already moving out of that area due to intensifying Israeli strikes, according to UN humanitarian officials, and moving toward central areas around Deir al-Balah

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Friday about the reported movements toward Deir al-Balah, which is roughly 16 kilometres north of Rafah. He also described the lack of food in Rafah and elsewhere — especially in northern Gaza, the first target of the offensive, where large areas have been completely destroyed.

“In Rafah, humanitarian conditions have become increasingly severe, with continued reports of people stopping aid trucks to take food,” he said. “Vulnerable segments of the population including children, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions, are particularly susceptible to the risk of malnutrition.”

Throughout Gaza, Dujarric said the delivery of aid is hindered by frequent border closures, longstanding import restrictions of goods into Gaza, damage to critical infrastructure, and the security situation.

Top UN court rejects motion for measures against Rafah offensive

Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice on Friday rejected an “urgent request” from South Africa to impose urgent measures to safeguard Rafah. It stressed, however, that Israel must respect earlier measures imposed late last month at a preliminary stage in a landmark genocide case.

The top UN court said in a statement that the “perilous situation” in Rafah “demands immediate and effective implementation of the provisional measures” that it ordered on Jan. 26.

It said no new order was necessary because the existing measures “are applicable throughout the Gaza Strip, including in Rafah.”

It added that Israel “remains bound to fully comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention” and the Jan. 26 ruling which ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza.

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Citing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the court noted “the most recent developments in the Gaza Strip, and in Rafah in particular, ‘would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.’”

Israel had earlier in the week urged the court to reject what it called South Africa’s “highly peculiar and improper” request and did not immediately comment on the ruling on Friday as it fell on the Jewish Sabbath, when government offices are closed.

Israel strongly denies committing genocide in Gaza and says it does all it can to spare civilians and is only targeting Hamas militants. It says Hamas’ tactic of embedding in civilian areas makes it difficult to avoid civilian casualties.

The provisional measures ordered last month came at a preliminary stage of a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of breaching the Genocide Convention.

The court also called on Hamas to release the hostages who are still in captivity. Hamas urged the international community to make Israel carry out the court’s orders.

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South Africa’s legal campaign is rooted in issues central to its identity: Its governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to its own history under the apartheid regime of white minority rule, which restricted most Blacks to “homelands.” Apartheid ended in 1994.

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Netanyahu says Rafah offensive will go ahead as fears grow for patients in raided hospital

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. Fears continued to mount for the patients and staff trapped inside the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, which was raided by the Israeli army. 

The deadly bombardment of Gaza continued overnight with another 100 people killed in Israeli strikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams are stuck without water, food and electricity in the Nasser hospital in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Younis, according to the health ministry.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Younis, the hometown of Hamas‘s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack that triggered the war.


Nasser hospital under Israeli control. © Jean-Michel Cornu, Sylvie Husson, Valentina Breschi, AFP

Intense fighting has raged around the Nasser hospital – one of the Palestinian territory’s last major medical facilities that remains even partly operational.

The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

“New-born children are at a risk of dying in the next few hours,” the ministry warned Saturday.

Israel’s army said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was “credible intelligence” that hostages seized in the October 7 attack had been held there and that the bodies of some may still be inside.

Hamas's armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are 'struggling to stay alive'.
Hamas’s armed wing has warned that the hostages held in Gaza are ‘struggling to stay alive’. © Tobias Schwarz, AFP

It said it has detained 100 people from the hospital suspected of “terrorist activity”, seized weapons and retrieved “medications with the names of Israeli hostages” in the hospital.

But the raid has been criticised by medics and the United Nations. The army has insisted it made every effort to keep the hospital supplied with power, including bringing in an alternative generator.

A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot “at anyone who moved inside the hospital”.

‘Pattern of attacks’

World Health Organization spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic slammed the operation Friday, saying “more degradation to the hospital means more lives being lost”.

“Patients, health workers, and civilians who are seeking refuge in hospitals deserve safety and not a burial in those places of healing,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders said its medics had been forced to flee and leave patients behind, with one employee unaccounted for and another detained by Israeli forces.

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

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals for military purposes, which the Palestinian Islamist group has denied.

The UN Human Rights Office said the Nasser hospital raid appeared to be “part of a pattern of attacks by Israeli forces striking essential life-saving civilian infrastructure”.

‘Die from hunger’

High-level negotiations to pause the war were held this week in Cairo, but continue to remain “not really very promising”, said the prime minister of Qatar, a key mediator for the negotiations, on Saturday. 

“I believe that we can see a deal happening very soon. Yet the pattern in the last few days is not really very promising,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said at the Munich Security Conference.

“We will always remain optimistic, we will always remain pushing,” he added, speaking in English. 

A day after US President Joe Biden called for a “temporary truce” to secure the release of hostages, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday reiterated the group’s demands, including a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners, and withdrawal of Israeli troops.

At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved.
At the Abu Yussef Al-Najjar hospital in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, AFP saw corpses lined up in body bags while relatives grieved. © Mohammed Abed, AFP

Qatar-based Haniyeh said Hamas would “not agree to anything less”.

Al-Thani also said on Saturday that a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas “should not be conditioned” by an agreement on hostage release. “This is the dilemma that we’ve been in and unfortunately that’s been misused by a lot of countries, that in order to get a ceasefire, it’s conditional to have the hostage deal. It shouldn’t be conditioned.”

Biden has also urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to launch an offensive in Rafah without a plan to keep civilians safe – but Netanyahu insisted he would push ahead with a “powerful” operation there to defeat Hamas.

During a televised news conference on Saturday, Netanyahu said critics calling for Israel not to mount military action in Rafah were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas. The Israeli premier also indicated that troops would go into the southern Gaza Strip city regardless of whether a hostage release was agreed. “Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah.” 

Around 1.4 million displaced civilians are trapped in Rafah after taking refuge in a makeshift encampment by the Egyptian border, with dwindling supplies.

“We are dying slowly due to the scarcity of resources and the lack of medications and treatments,” said displaced Palestinian Mohammad Yaghi.

In northern Gaza, many are so desperate for food they are grinding up animal feed.

Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters.
Israel has called for the head of UNRWA to step down after claims a Hamas tunnel had been discovered under its evacuated headquarters. © AFP

“We need food now,” said Mohammed Nassar, 50, from Jabalia in northern Gaza.

“We’re going to die from hunger, not by bombs or missiles.”

With the UN warning that Gazans are close to famine, the head of its agency for Palestinian refugees accused Israel of waging a campaign to “destroy” it entirely.

Israel has called for UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini to resign following claims a Hamas tunnel was discovered under its Gaza City headquarters.

Read moreAs donors suspend critical funding to UNRWA, allegations against staff remain murky

Lazzarini told Swiss media Tamedia that the tunnel was 20 metres underground, and UNRWA didn’t have the capabilities to search below ground in Gaza. More than 150 UNRWA installations have been hit during the war, he said.

Regional tensions

Hamas’s armed wing has warned hostages in Gaza are also “struggling to stay alive” as conditions deteriorate due to relentless Israeli bombardments.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Egypt was building a walled camp near the border to accommodate Palestinians displaced from Gaza, citing Egyptian officials and security analysts.

Satellite images obtained by AFP show machinery building a wall along the highly secure frontier.

With the conflict now in its fifth month, regional tensions remain high.

Hamas ally Hezbollah and arch-foe Israel have been exchanging near-daily border fire since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed that Israel would pay “with blood” for civilians it has killed in Lebanon.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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UK ‘bases of death’ see controversy amid Middle East conflict

Activists claim the UK and US use Cyprus as an “unsinkable warship” as recent conflicts in the Middle East spark renewed controversy over British military bases on the Mediterranean island.

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“We don’t want our island to be part of these wars,” Athina Kariati, a member of United for Palestine in Cyprus, told Euronews. “They are not for democracy, peace or justice.”

The Cypriot activist is part of a movement protesting against UK bases on the Mediterranean island, which are reportedly playing a significant role in recent conflicts in the Middle East.

“Western powers use Cyprus as an unsinkable warship,” she said. “This cannot continue.”

Numerous reports, including by DeclassifiedUK and Haaretz, claim UK and US forces are supporting Israel’s catastrophic offensive in Gaza with weapons and intelligence from Akrotiri and Dhekelia in southern Cyprus. 

The UK government has repeatedly denied this, saying that no Royal Air Force (RAF) flights to Israel have transported lethal cargo. 

RAF Akrotiri – a 40-minute flight from Tel Aviv – was also widely reported as the staging post for airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen in January, prompting angry crowds to gather outside the facility and chant “out with the bases of death.”

Kept by the UK after Cyprus won independence from its colonial rule several decades ago, the two sites – which cover 3% of the country – have remained in the background for decades. 

But recent events in the Middle East have galvanised local groups against them.

‘Leftover from colonialism’

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on 7 October, they have become increasingly aware of a “daily increase” in flights from Akrotiri and an alleged ramped-up military presence there.

Activist Kariati says she opposes Cyprus being used to support Israeli attacks on Palestinians because of her country’s own experience of foreign interference and occupation.

“We do know what invasion means,” she told Euronews. “The memory is very fresh… The apartheid and settler genocide that is taking place in Gaza is very close to what we experienced [in Cyprus].”

“We don’t want that to happen to anybody,” Kariati added.

Following a prolonged period of ethnic tensions, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, leading to its division into the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The conflict resulted in widespread death, violence and displacement on both sides.

Cypriot activists also claim UK and US actions risk making Cyprus itself a target, with their strikes in Yemen having raised fears of regional escalation.

“People are afraid of retaliation,” says Kariati. “This is one reason some join the struggle against the bases.”

“Can we say Cyprus is safe? I am not sure.”

The EU’s most easterly state has not experienced violent overspill from the Middle East – bar a stray Syrian anti-aircraft missile that hit the north in 2019. Still, concerns are rising that the Israel Hamas war could engulf the wider region. 

In a statement sent to Euronews, a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said: “British Forces Cyprus plays a vital role in supporting humanitarian and disaster relief operations, such as pursuing humanitarian maritime routes to move aid into Gaza.

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“The only intelligence support provided to Israel has been specifically through the use of unarmed RAF aircraft to locate hostages_”  they said about the 240 people taken hostage by Palestinian militants, after their deadly 7 October assault on southern Israel.

“The Sovereign Base Areas make a major contribution to the security and stability of Europe and the wider region. The Republic of Cyprus is a trusted and valuable partner and the SBAs support joint UK-Cyprus efforts on many shared challenges, including participation in Cyprus’ civilian evacuation operations,” the statement continued. 

The UK MoD pointed to its humanitarian activity at the bases, detailing that British Forces Cyprus support efforts to ensure aid is provided to all those who are suffering as a result of the conflict in Gaza.

‘They don’t want to break relationships’

When Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1960, London struck a deal with Turkey, Greece and Cypriot community leaders. The agreement outlined that Akrotiri and Dhekelia would both remain under British jurisdiction as sovereign territories. They operate beyond the reach of Cypriot authorities. 

Although the UK is not ‘controlling’ the country, Kariati claimed the bases are seen as “colonial” by many on the island.

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“Can we act as we want when parts of our land are occupied and controlled by an imperialist force? ” she asked. “There are places that Cypriot people don’t have any control over.”

Cypriot officials have repeatedly said they are not involved in any military operations, with the UK not obliged to inform them about activity in the facilities under their treaty of establishment.

Yet, The Guardian has reported that the US ambassador and British high commissioner briefed the Cypriot president of imminent military action in Yemen before the first round of airstrikes in January.

Campaigners like Kariati allege the government of the Republic of Cyprus is complicit in the bloodshed in Gaza by allowing the UK and US to help Israel.

“They [the leaders] use excuses that legal reasons mean they don’t have the right to do anything. But if they wanted to, they could make a political statement that they are against the war.”

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The Cypriot government did not reply to Euronews’ request for comment.

‘New militarisation of Cyprus’

However, the UK is not the only country operating on Cypriot soil.

French aircraft use a military air base in the southeastern corner of the island, DeclassifiedUK reports the US military has increased its presence on the Mediterranean Island, though this is unconfirmed. 

Alongside being a “very strategic point on the map”, Kariati claims Western powers are interested in Cyprus because of recently discovered gas reserves.

A US firm began exploratory drilling of natural gas in 2011, despite warnings from Turkey that the move could upset peace on the island. Cyprus announced in 2017 that licenses for well drilling had been granted to Exxon Mobil, Italy’s ENI and France’s Total.

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In parallel, Israel and Cyprus created an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2011 that clarified the two countries’ rights to oil and underwater gas reservoirs. Israel, Cyprus, the United States and Greece then agreed to enhance cooperation in energy, cyber and infrastructure security in 2019. 

Kariati claims these developments helped shift support in Cyprus towards Israel, with the country outwardly backing the Palestinians through the 1980s and 90s, alongside a “new militarisation” of the island.

“The military presence on and around Cyprus is rising in number and power. It doesn’t make us feel safe in any way,” she continued.



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The ‘Philadelphi Corridor’: A goal for Netanyahu, a red line for Egypt

A narrow buffer zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the “Philadelphia Corridor” has come under increasing scrutiny as Israel plans a full-scale military offensive on Rafah, Gaza’s crammed, southernmost city near the border. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to take control of the strategic sliver of land. That has Egypt worried amid fears of a breakdown of the decades-old Egypt-Israel peace accords.

Truce talks in Cairo this week have focused attention on the pressure Egypt is facing during the Israel-Hamas war and a little-known sliver of land rather inaccurately called “the Philadelphi Corridor”, sometimes translated as the Philadelphia Corridor.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his country’s intention to control this narrow buffer zone along the Egypt-Gaza border since the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched its war against Hamas following the October 7 attacks.

With Israel now threatening a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah – despite international warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in a city crammed with around 1.5 million forcibly displaced Gazans – Egypt is warily eyeing its northeastern border with Israel.

A day before the CIA and Mossad chiefs held talks in Cairo this week with regional negotiators desperate for a ceasefire, Netanyahu was rattling Egyptian nerves again.  

In an interview with US TV channel ABC News, Netanyahu said Israel would provide “safe passage for the civilian population to leave” Rafah, which he described as Hamas’s “last stronghold”.

The Israeli prime minister did not say exactly where the desperate, already displaced Gazans could take refuge. Netanyahu did however mention areas north of Rafah that could be used as safe zones for civilians.

The UN though is not convinced of Israel’s plans for Gaza’s civilians. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Tuesday that the UN “will not be party to the forced displacement of people” since “there is no place currently safe” in Gaza.

That increased the spotlight on the Philadelphi Corridor, a route that runs along Gaza’s southern frontier with Egypt, from the Mediterranean coast to the Kerem Shalom crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip meet.

The Philadephi Corridor © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Fearing a massive influx of refugees and its possible consequences, Egypt has deployed around 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers in northeastern Sinai over the past few weeks. This deployment is part of a series of measures aimed at reinforcing security on the border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters.

Through the corridors of power

Named “Philadelphi” after a randomly chosen Israeli military code name for what is also called the “Saladin Axis”, the strategic corridor is a 14 kilometre-long and 100 metre-wide buffer zone. It was set up in accordance with the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

The aim of the Philadelphi Corridor is to prevent armed incursions, control the movement of Palestinians in both directions, and prevent smuggling and arms trafficking between the Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Marked by barbed wire fences and concrete blocks, the Philadelphi Corridor was under Israeli control until the IDF’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The 2005 Philadelphi Accord between Egypt and Israel authorised Cairo to deploy a contingent of 750 Egyptian border guards along the Egyptian side of the buffer zone. These border guards were the first Egyptian soldiers to patrol the zone since the 1967 war, when the Gaza Strip was conquered by Israel along with the Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned to Egypt under the Camp David Accords.

The 2005 Egypt-Israel agreement very precisely defined the Egyptian military equipment deployment in this buffer zone: eight helicopters, 30 light armored vehicles and four coastal patrol ships.

Their mission was to guard the corridor on the Egyptian side – the only Gaza border outside the direct control of the Israeli army – to combat terrorism and prevent smuggling and infiltrations.

On the other side of the corridor, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces took over from the Israelis. But just two years later, the PA lost control of the corridor when it was pushed out of Gaza following the 2007 conflict between its Fatah and rival Hamas fighters.

In response, Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade, as well as an embargo on the Palestinian enclave now under Hamas control. These restrictions encouraged the development of a system of smuggling tunnels, passing under the no-man’s-land between Gaza and Egypt, enabling goods and people to cross the border, which was documented by Israel as early as 1983.

Since then, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah terminal, through which people, goods and humanitarian aid transit, has only been opened intermittently. Israel sees this zone as a vital supply area for Hamas.

 

A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet.
A buffer zone where the borders of Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip meet. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

In December 2007, Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni criticised Egypt for doing a “poor” job of stopping arms smuggling through the Philadelphi Corridor.

As far back as 2008-2009 Gaza war, also known as Operation Cast Lead, Israeli military plans called for the occupation of the Philadelphi Corridor in order to destroy the underground smuggling tunnels. This would have de facto encircled the Gaza Strip.

Following the 2013 military coup which ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo became hostile to Hamas, which it saw as a Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood.

The Egyptian army set about destroying hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with the Gaza Strip. This was in retaliation against Hamas, which Cairo accused of destabilising the Sinai while the Egyptian military waged a counterterrorism operation against a branch of the Islamic State (IS) group. To destroy this underground system, Egypt deliberately flooded the border area in 2015.

The land that ‘must be in our hands’

After the October 7 attacks on Israeli soil, which was unprecedented in scale and human toll, attention in Israel once again turned to the Philadelphi Corridor, which was perceived more than ever as a strategic area for Hamas.

As the year ended – and the Gaza war headed to its third month – Netanyahu unambiguously stated Israel’s strategic intentions at a news conference on December 30.  

“The Philadelphi Corridor – or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek,” he said.

Netanyahu has frequently repeated this threat, compelling Cairo to take the Israeli leader’s rhetoric very seriously.

The risk of desperate Gazans fleeing into Egypt due to the Israeli assault is of great concern to Egyptian authorities, according to Salah Gomaa, deputy editor of Egyptian state-owned radio station Al-Sharq Al Awsat.

Since the start of the latest Gaza war, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who acts as mediator between Hamas and the Israeli government, has opposed the idea of allowing Gazans fleeing the war and crowded together at the Egyptian border to enter his territory. In a November address, Sisi reiterated his country’s rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans to Egypt, calling it a “red line”.

“Any bombardment or attack at Rafah now will certainly lead the refugees to flee to Sinai,” said Gomaa. “If Egypt allows this to happen, it will mean that it accepts the liquidation of the Palestinian issue while hardline Israeli ministers openly advocate the resettlement of Gaza and the ‘transfer‘ of Gazans to neighbouring Egypt.”

A diplomatic crisis looms

In addition to a likely humanitarian catastrophe, Netanyahu also runs the risk of triggering an open diplomatic crisis with Egypt if he orders an Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor.

In mid-January, Israel informed Egypt of its intention to carry out a military operation along the Gaza side of the border, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing Israeli and Egyptian sources.

Days later, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Egypt’s official public relations office, the State Information Service (SIS), issued a stern warning that any “occupation” of the Philadelphi Corridor by Israeli forces would be a violation of the 1978 peace treaty between the two neighbouring nations.

“Many Israeli politicians have stated that the very purpose of taking control of the corridor is to enable the Palestinians, under the pressure of bombardment, to migrate towards Sinai, and this is the crux of the problem with the announcement of an imminent assault on Rafah,” explained Gomaa, “This is why the SIS chief issued a firm warning and this is why Egypt considers the reoccupation of this axis to be a red line.”

Egypt, an ally of the US, has used Washington to underscore the importance of its message, according to Gomaa. “Egypt has informed Israel through diplomatic channels and has informed Israel through the United States that this option will never be allowed by Egypt.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The UNRWA case reveals a much larger problem with humanitarian aid

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

The global consensus that humanitarian work is essential too easily surrenders the moral high ground, often with devastating consequences. It is time to recover that ground, Ambassador Mark Wallace and Dr Hans-Jakob Schindler write.

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Evidence implicating UNRWA employees in the 7 October terrorist attacks should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the activities of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees closely. 

Allegations that some UNRWA workers were in fact Hamas operatives are merely the latest iteration of a much larger problem plaguing the international aid sector. 

A stunning lack of oversight and regulation of humanitarian funds over the past several decades has allowed untold billions in taxpayer money to make their way into terrorists’ coffers.

While aid agencies may baulk at what they perceive as burdensome “red tape”, strict oversight and transparency are in fact fundamental to humanitarian work: they ensure that aid is delivered to those who need it, not diverted to extremist and terrorist groups.

Claims of no knowledge increasingly strain credulity

For years, UNRWA has played host to bad actors uninterested in a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

According to a dossier presented by Israeli intelligence, one in ten staff are terrorist “operatives”. 

Some 23% of male UNRWA workers in Gaza have ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), compared to 15% of male Gazans as a whole. And 49% are alleged to have “close relatives” also tied to either Hamas or PIJ. 

Claims by UNRWA that it had no knowledge of the vast network of Hamas tunnels under schools and hospitals, funded by billions of dollars of diverted aid, increasingly strain credulity.

Several UNRWA personnel over the years have been discovered to be terrorists or officials of terrorist organisations, including PIJ rocket-maker Awad al-Qiq, former Hamas interior minister Said Siam, and Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan in 2009.

On 7 October, 12 UNRWA personnel helped Hamas execute the massacre, or aided the group in the wake of the attack. 

According to the dossier, one of the agency staffers took a woman hostage, another dispensed ammunition, and a third took part in mass murder at an Israeli kibbutz.

This case is no exception

How did humanitarian workers come to play a role in the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust? 

The reality is that UNRWA is by no means the exception when it comes to humanitarian terror financing. In the world of international aid, it’s an occupational hazard.

Throughout the 1990s, the Taliban regularly harassed and robbed aid agencies. The current Taliban regime likewise uses a network of sham local organisations to divert aid money. 

In the early 2000s, reports emerged that in Somalia, the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab had siphoned off so much international aid that it established a “Humanitarian Coordination Office”, charging aid groups to “register”. 

Several years later, al-Shabaab continued to extort aid deliveries via roadblocks and so-called “taxes”.

In 2018, a partial audit of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) found that some $700 million (€649m) of US taxpayer-funded programming in Iraq and Syria had been improperly vetted. 

That same year, several dozen individuals and organisations who had received USAID funding in the region were blacklisted, and over $200m (€185.5m) in funds were frozen.

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The Houthi rebel group in Yemen stifles almost all movement of international aid through the areas they control; they have set up a “humanitarian” agency, the Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), for the express purpose of re-directing aid toward their own militant ends. The results have been catastrophic for the Yemeni people.

Decisions that didn’t age well

Regulating aid is not simply about alleviating security concerns. On the ground, any dime relinquished to a militant group is unlikely to achieve its stated aims and, as in the case of UNRWA, in fact, exacerbates the conflict it is trying to alleviate.

Just two years ago, the Biden administration began funding UNRWA again on the basis that the organisation had made commitments to “transparency, accountability, and neutrality”. 

Several European governments, including Germany, even increased UNRWA funding in the wake of the October attacks.

Those decisions have obviously not aged well. But they are the result of a steady flow of arguments from humanitarian workers and aid groups who claim that regulations and sanctions, even with humanitarian exemptions, do little more than hamper their work. 

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This attitude is dangerously dismissive, as former UNRWA General Counsel James Lindsay wrote in a 2009 report: “UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from [its] ranks…and no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organisations, such as Hamas, from joining.”

We can’t keep surrendering the moral high ground

Brutal terror groups and extremist regimes will always see humanitarian funds as quasi-piggy banks for enhancing their own power. 

Effective oversight, budget transparency, complete reporting requirements, as well as internal and external controls are indispensable elements to ensure that any developing problems are caught early, aid diversion is mitigated, and guardrails are in place to prevent international aid workers from being involved in terror groups or attacks.

Despite criticism from the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, several European countries, in addition to the US, have now suspended payments to UNRWA. This is a step in the right direction. 

The global consensus that humanitarian work is essential too easily surrenders the moral high ground, often with devastating consequences. 

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It is time to recover that ground, which has for too long provided cover for the worst acts of terrorism. 

Ambassador Mark Wallace serves as CEO and Dr Hans-Jakob Schindler is Senior Director at the Counter Extremism Project.

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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Biden says Israel shouldn’t press into Rafah without ‘credible’ plan to protect civilians

Israel shouldn’t go ahead with a military operation in the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah without a “credible” plan to protect civilians, President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, the White House said.

They spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if Israeli troops are sent into Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting could force the closure of the besieged territory’s main aid supply route.

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Mr. Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. He asserted that Hamas still has four battalions there.


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

Over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into sprawling tent camps and U.N.-run shelters near the border. Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Mr. Netanyahu told “Fox News Sunday” that there’s “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things.”

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, where around 80% of residents have fled their homes and where the U.N. says a quarter of the population faces starvation.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering Gaza’s badly needed food and medical supplies.

Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar aimed at achieving a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages.

Mr. Biden last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top.”

All three officials confirmed Egypt’s threats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that forced displacement is a war crime and that civilians who don’t evacuate are still protected by international humanitarian law. “There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza,” refugee and migrant rights researcher Nadia Hardman said.

The White House, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire, has also warned against a Rafah ground operation under current circumstances, saying it would be a “disaster” for civilians.

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, a landmark peace treaty brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. The treaty includes several provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the border.

Egypt has heavily fortified its border with Gaza, carving out a 5-kilometer (3-mile) buffer zone and erecting concrete walls above and below ground. It has denied Israeli allegations that Hamas operates smuggling tunnels beneath the border, saying Egyptian forces have full control on their side.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more who fled fighting elsewhere, and it is “severely overcrowded.”

Inside Rafah, some displaced people packed up again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings on the back of a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move, and with all the fear and missiles.”

An Israeli ground invasion of Rafah may force Palestinians in Gaza to flee to Egypt, Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry said, and she hoped that Egyptians would “open the borders and let us flee to Sinai.”

Israel has ordered much of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory, even as it regularly carries out airstrikes in all areas, including Rafah. Airstrikes on the town in recent days have killed dozens of Palestinians, including women and children.

Israel’s offensive has caused widespread destruction, particularly in northern Gaza, and heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis. In Gaza City on Sunday, remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried bodies to graves. Some streets were piled high with sand from bombings.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, as well as 173 wounded people. The fatalities brought the death toll in the strip to 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.

The war began with Hamas’ attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. Over 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some of the remaining hostages have died.

Hamas has said it won’t release any more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. It has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including senior militants serving life sentences.

Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until “total victory” and the return of all the hostages.



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Patients at overwhelmed Gaza hospital are often ‘dying or doomed to die’

Emergency medical personnel who volunteered to work at the European hospital near Khan Younis tell FRANCE 24 of the dire conditions at one of Gaza’s last functioning medical facilities, where overwhelmed staff grapple with an acute shortage of medicine and have to make agonising choices over which critically injured patients to treat. 

Doctor Raphaël Pitti and nurse Imane Maarifi returned to France on February 6 after a gruelling 16-day stint at the overcrowded European hospital in southern Gaza, where thousands of displaced people have joined the injured and sick, seeking shelter and safety.   

Their account offers rare insight into the plight of the Palestinian enclave – a mostly no-go zone for the international media – much of which has been reduced to rubble after four months of devastating bombings and ground fighting.

In the opening stages of the Israel-Hamas war, Khan Younis witnessed an influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting in the enclave’s north. But in recent weeks, the southern city has itself become the focus of fierce clashes, leaving displaced Gazans at the mercy of daily bombardment.  

“The local population are caught in a trap, living in extremely difficult conditions,” said Pitti, an emergency physician who was part of a seven-member team of health workers sent by the NGO PalMed Europe. “People sleep out on the pavement, under makeshift shelters,” he added. “The streets are filthy and the recent rainfall has left stagnant water everywhere.”

According to the medics, some 25,000 people are currently amassed around the hospital near Khan Younis and around 6,000 are crammed inside the facility. More arrive each day, hoping to find shelter or treatment. 

“People lack everything,” said Maarifi, 37, whose last patient, a newborn baby, died of hypothermia in her arms. She recalled trying to resuscitate a patient on the floor in a corridor and seeing children steal gloves from her pocket “to make balloons out of them”.

‘Heartbreaking choices’

Israel launched its offensive after more than 1,100 people were killed in an October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs Gaza. Since then, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave, most of them women or children, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel and the United States accuse Hamas of using Gaza’s population as human shields and say Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members are operating out of hospitals in the territory.

The European hospital is one of the last functioning medical facilities in the enclave. In its overcrowded corridors, medical staff and volunteers try as best they can to provide care to the sick and wounded, in daunting conditions.

Read moreMalnourished, sick and scared: Pregnant women in Gaza face ‘unthinkable challenges’

“You have volunteers doing the work of orderlies, nurses doing the work of doctors, and doctors standing in for surgeons,” said Maarifi, lamenting a critical shortage of medicine and equipment.

“There are no sheets, sterile drapes or compresses,” the nurse added, and the dwindling supply of painkillers has to be used sparingly. Her voice choking up, she recalled having to make “heartbreaking choices” between “a child hit by shrapnel” and another “whose leg had been torn off”. 

In addition to the injured, the hospital is overwhelmed by patients suffering from chronic diseases, respiratory problems or illnesses linked to poor living conditions. 

“We can no longer do any dialysis or chemotherapy. Patients who need treatment are either dying or doomed to die,” said Maarifi. She cited the case of a pregnant 24-year-old patient with diabetes who developed complications due to the shortage of insulin, lost her baby and died the next day.

‘Collapse of public health’

“We are heading for a collapse of public health in Gaza,” said Lucile Marbeau, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which works in partnership with the Egyptian Red Crescent (which is in charge of coordinating international aid to Gaza) and its Palestinian counterpart. 

“The war-wounded are amputated on a daily basis, the chronically ill can no longer receive treatment, and living conditions are stoking fears of a resurgence of diseases such as polio, cholera and chickenpox, which we won’t be able to treat,” Marbeau added.

She pointed to the worsening situation in nearby Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where desperate Gazans are gathering as Israel’s offensive pushes further south.

The city of around 270,000 inhabitants has seen its population increase sixfold since the start of the war, and is now home to more than 1.3 million people. Like Khan Younis, it has become a sprawling camp for displaced people crammed into tents and makeshift shelters.


Marbeau spoke of “deplorable hygiene conditions”, noting that water treatment plants have stopped working, depriving the population of toilets. “Access to drinking water is also very difficult and people are not getting enough to eat because the prices of the few foodstuffs available have soared,” she added.

Humanitarian aid ‘a drop in the ocean’

On December 22, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on all sides in the conflict to allow “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale” into the enclave. But more than a month later, NGOs on the ground say only a trickle of the required aid has reached the people of Gaza.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” said Marbeau, who also flagged the need for specific equipment to carry out repairs to basic infrastructure, such as plumbing work to improve access to drinking water.

The UN resolution also urged all parties to guarantee the “protection of humanitarian workers” and their “freedom of movement” throughout the enclave – conditions that are far from being met. 

“Access to the north of Gaza is still impossible because of the security conditions there,” said Marbeau, whose team has been unable to visit northern parts of the enclave since the beginning of November. “It is now the most deprived area and we are unable to help vulnerable people there,” she added. 

Expectations of an imminent Israeli ground offensive on Rafah have raised further alarm – particularly given that the border city is also the entry point for critically needed humanitarian aid from Egypt.

“A ground offensive in such a densely populated area would have dramatic consequences for the civilian population,” Marbeau warned. “We must, at all costs, show greater respect for humanitarian law in this conflict if civilians are to be spared.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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As donors suspend critical funding to UNRWA, allegations against staff remain murky

From our UN correspondent in New York – The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) announced on January 26 that it had terminated the contracts of several employees pending an investigation into Israeli allegations that they had been involved in Hamas’s October 7 attacks in Israel. The move prompted several nations to suspend vital funding to UNRWA while the inquiry proceeds, deepening Gaza’s already acute humanitarian crisis. But Israel refuses to share either its evidence or the intelligence dossier – a summary of which was seen by FRANCE 24 – with UNRWA, posing a challenge for the UN agency to complete its inquiry.

A senior Israeli diplomat surprised UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini during a routine in-person meeting in Tel Aviv on January 18, informing him that Israel had evidence UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 massacre in southern Israel that left more than 1,100 dead.  

“We were shocked, we took this seriously because these were very serious allegations,” UNRWA director of communications Juliette Touma told FRANCE 24.    

Lazzarini travelled to New York four days later to brief UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and then to the US State Department in Washington to warn UNRWA’s top donor, the United States, Touma said.

Lazzarini also “had a series of phone call interactions with several of our largest donors before the UN went public in the morning of January 26” with the decision to let some staff members go.

“We took the decision to put out the information first and not to respond to leaks,” Touma said.  

She added that the Israeli information was given to Lazzarini verbally but that no evidence was shared. 

UNRWA acted quickly and “cross-checked the information and the names they were given,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told a press briefing last week.

The UN ended the contracts of the accused staff members and said it was launching an investigation into the Israeli claims. Touma said this unprecedented step was taken because the allegations “put the reputation of the agency and humanitarian operation in Gaza at serious risk”.

But despite the UN’s announcement of an immediate investigation, key UNRWA donors suspended funding to the agency pending its findings, as millions of Gazans go desperately hungry, are at risk of disease, and are forced to sleep in crude shelters or even on the streets amid continuing Israeli bombardment. 

The accusations against a handful of staff in an agency of 13,000 employees operating in Gaza alone have already had a devastating effect on civilians. UNRWA provides essential government services in Gaza, including running 278 schools for 280,000 children and 22 primary healthcare centres, while also providing food to the approximately 2 million people who have been under siege by Israel since early October. 

The ‘suspenders’ 

At least 16 donor countries, including the top two contributors – the US and Germany – have frozen funding to UNRWA over the allegations and have been dubbed the “suspenders” in the corridors of UN headquarters in New York.

About $440 million in funding is at risk, Touma said, adding that UNRWA will run out of money by the end of February if donors continue to withhold money. 

The United States and other donor nations as well as the European Union have made it clear they will not resume funding until they are satisfied with the UN’s investigation. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement that there must be “complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks”.

Guterres has urged donor nations to resume funding to UNRWA immediately, reminding them of the “swift” action the UN is taking to address the accusations. He also asked Lazzarini to task an outside organisation with conducting a separate, independent assessment of the agency’s operations in addition to the internal UN review.

The UN announced on Monday that it had appointed Catherine Colonna, France’s former minister of foreign affairs, to lead the Independent Review Group to “assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made”. The group will begin work on February 14 and will submit an interim report to the secretary general in late March with a final report – which will be made public – expected by late April 2024. 

France, UNRWA’s fourth-biggest donor, has not suspended its voluntary contributions to the agency. France increased its funding in 2023 to  €60 million, out of concern over the “disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza” and its impact on civilians. France’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it will be “waiting for the investigations launched in recent days” to decide how to proceed regarding its contributions for 2024.

‘The dodgy dossier’  

Israel has not yet shared its full intelligence dossier with either UNRWA or the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN legal body tasked with carrying out the internal investigation.

“I don’t think we need to give intelligence information,” said Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry. “This would reveal sources in the operation. We gave information to UNRWA about employees that worked for UNRWA that are members of Hamas.” 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves. But they are highly, highly credible.”

Haiat noted that the very nature of the allegations makes it impossible for Israel to share all the evidence it has with UNRWA.

“They think that we can give them intelligence information, knowing that some of their employees work for Hamas? Are you serious? Why don’t we invite Hamas to our headquarters and have them sit at our desk and have a look at all the information we have?” he asked.

A six-page summary of the Israeli dossier leaked to a handful of media outlets and seen by FRANCE 24 provides the names of the 12 UNRWA staff members accused of participating in the Hamas attacks, ranging from kidnapping Israelis to helping to carry out the massacre at the Be’eri kibbutz. Two of the accused are dead and another is unaccounted for. 

The dossier alleges that the first man on the list of the accused, an UNRWA school counselor, entered Israeli territory to kidnap an Israeli woman with the help of his son.  

The accusations say they are drawn, in part, from “intelligence information, documents and identity cards seized during the course of the fighting”. The dossier estimates that there are around 190 Hamas or Palestine Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives working for UNRWA. 

The Israeli foreign ministry told FRANCE 24 that evidence of UNRWA staff involvement includes phone tracking that shows where the employees were on October 7 as well as video footage gathered by the Israeli Defence Forces.

Yet this documentation has not been provided to UN investigators. 

“They received some type of evidence to terminate the employees, obviously they would not have done that if they did not receive some type of evidence,” said Joshua Lavine, the spokesperson for the Israeli mission to the UN.  

Lavine said that he was “not surprised that there are members of UNRWA who are also members of terror organisations” and that there have been meetings in the past between the Israeli mission and UN officials discussing the issue.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan escorted a delegation of nine UN ambassadors to Israel on January 31 where they met with the president, the foreign and defence ministers, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. UNRWA was discussed at length. 

In a February 1 briefing, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told the ambassadors that UNRWA had “lost its legitimacy to exist”. Malta’s UN Ambassador Vanessa Frazier, who took part in the delegation, told FRANCE 24 that Gallant told them that UNRWA is “an internationally funded organisation paid to kill Israelis”.  

The ambassadors had a clear message for Israel, Frazier said: “Support the SG’s (UN secretary general’s) investigation; anyone involved must be accountable, but the collective punishment only hurts the Gazans more.”

Inquiry will take time

Donors are demanding a speedy inquiry before resuming funding, but UN sources say this could take up to a year.

Former senior OIOS investigator Vladimir Dzuro, who led a major probe into top management UNRWA, said the OIOS aims to complete investigations within six months but that a realistic timeframe is more like six to 12 months, depending on the complexity of the allegations.

“I do not believe that any professional investigation into allegations of this nature, in a quality that is required under the circumstances, could be conducted in four weeks,” Dzuro said, before UNRWA’s funding runs out.

It is also unlikely that UN investigators could conduct a thorough inquiry in an active war zone, he noted.  

The OIOS director of investigations, Suzette Schultz, was tight-lipped about the investigation, saying in an email only that her team is “pursuing various avenues of enquiry” and that it has “approached multiple member states that may have information relevant to the investigation”. 

Donor nation Norway has refused to cut aid to UNRWA. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide urged other donors not to turn their backs on UNRWA, saying: “We should not collectively punish millions of people. We must distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.” 

Chris Gunness, former chief spokesperson for UNRWA from 2007 to 2020, accused the donors who have frozen funding of “illegally weaponising” UNRWA, thus violating the International Court of Justice ruling calling on Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza and the Genocide Convention itself. 

“If these donors have made a decision without cast-iron evidence, they need to be investigated for a move which humanitarian experts say will cause mass starvation,” he said. “It’s time for serious pushback against the dodgy dossier, bad donorship and the betrayal of the UN, UNRWA, its staff and the people of Gaza.”

Gunness noted that the dossier illustrates “perfectly why the donors must ring-fence humanitarian decision-making from politics”. 

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, an organisation named after Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who coined the term “genocide” in 1944, also sounded the alarm on the withdrawal of funds. “This is a serious escalation of the crisis in Gaza and follows the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) first ruling in Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel), which many hoped would slow the genocide.” 

“It is possible that at least some of the allegations are true. This is why UNRWA’s leadership has reacted swiftly, and an investigation has been launched,” said Matthias Schmale, UNRWA director in Gaza from 2017 to 2021.

“It can also be legitimately asked why these allegations surfaced around the time of the ICJ judgment that, amongst other things, articulated the need for immediate and massive delivery of humanitarian aid, which cannot be done without UNRWA,” he said.  

UNRWA in Israel’s crosshairs

Even before October 7, there was a long history of Israel questioning UNRWA’s credibility. And yet Israel relies solely on the UN agency to provide essential services to civilians in Gaza that it might otherwise have to provide itself. 

The agency is almost as old as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Created by the UN General Assembly in 1949, UNRWA was set up to provide critical social support for Palestinian refugees throughout the Mideast. Its mandate was renewed for another three years by the UN General Assembly in 2023.

Schmale, the former UNRWA director in Gaza, said that despite Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, the group has no involvement in the UN administration in the enclave.

“During my almost four years in Gaza I had to fire only one staff member for direct involvement, as we discovered that he was an active member of the Al-Qassam Brigade,” he said. “This was the exception, not the norm.”

“Hamas de facto authorities are NOT involved in UNRWA’s core services which include education and health,” Schmale said in an email. Hamas leaders “unsurprisingly from time to time make their views known on what UNRWA does and how, and express expectations of what should be conducted differently”.  

But Schmale said that, during his time in Gaza, “Hamas mostly respected that it cannot interfere in the running of the Agency, and we were able to conduct our work in conformity with UN standards and norms.”

UNRWA has 30,000 staff, mostly Palestinians, who provide essential services for millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. In Gaza alone, the agency has played a crucial role, especially since Israel imposed a blockade on the strip when Hamas took over governance in 2007. UNRWA is also the second-biggest employer in Gaza; 80 percent of the population of the 360-square-kilometre enclave relies on humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, the UN agency has aroused Israeli suspicions.

A copy of a classified report written by Israel’s foreign ministry with a plan to dismantle UNRWA in Gaza in three stages was leaked to Israeli media last month. The first stage involved revealing cooperation between UNRWA and the Hamas movement. 

Haiat confirmed the existence of the foreign ministry report but said that it was a “non-paper” that had not been “approved by anyone”. 

An earlier Israeli government plan made public in 2017 outlined a process for dissolving UNRWA and transferring its responsibilities to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  

When a Palestinian journalist and writer, Yasser Al Banna, who works in Gaza, read the allegations against UNRWA staff, he immediately recalled the leaked foreign ministry report and the 2017 Israeli government plan.

The accusations against UNRWA staff should be “taken in context,” Al Banna said, noting that the accused account for just 0.09 percent of UNRWA employees in Gaza. 

“Logically speaking, it is not strange that 12 people out of 13,000 employees [in Gaza] could get involved in illegal activities,”  Al Banna said. “Those involved should be punished legally and professionally. We should not punish an entire agency, an entire people.” 

Under pressure 

Lazzarini is now travelling to Gulf states to seek alternate funding for the agency. Despite facing intense pressure from Israel to resign, his spokesperson said he has no intention of doing so.

“This is a very serious crisis for the United Nations,” Touma acknowledged. “It’s probably one of the largest we’ve had to go through, involving the oldest and one of the most critical agencies of the UN. It’s important that the truth comes out.”

Touma was moved as she recalled her visits to UNRWA schools. “I have seen how they can be a sanctuary for children in a place like Gaza that is riddled with poverty, unemployment, despair, a blockade,” she said. 

She described meeting with young teenagers at a “children’s parliament”, an initiative run by UNRWA. It was a place “where refugee children can come together and learn about human rights, critical thinking and how to debunk” falsehoods.

“I ended up cancelling all my other engagements because I enjoyed speaking to these 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds so much,” Touma said. “They told me about their dreams, their hopes, what they want to be. They spoke about their love for Gaza, their dreams to travel, to be like any teenager … and that’s UNRWA.”

This article was produced in collaboration with PassBlueDamilola Banjo, reporter for PassBlue, contributed reporting

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