In Gaza, Rafah holds his breath while awaiting the Israeli offensive

The south of the Gaza Strip awaits with concern the Israeli offensive on Rafah, the preparation of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a few days ago. Around 1.4 million Palestinians, the vast majority displaced since October by the clashes, are crowding into this cramped territory located on the border with Egypt, still closed, except occasionally, to allow people to pass. ambulances and people requiring medical attention.

Netanyahu confirmed his intentions on Sunday in an interview broadcast by the American channel ABC News, calling Rafah the “last bastion” of the Islamist movement responsible for the October 7 terrorist attack. “Hamas must be dismantled as a military force that controls territory. It is within reach and we should not stop, added the Israeli Prime Minister. Those who say that we absolutely must not enter Rafah are in reality telling us that we must lose the war, and leave Hamas there.”

The same day, a Hamas official told AFP that any operation by Israeli forces at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip would “threaten the negotiations” for the release of the hostages. He added that Netanyahu “is trying to free himself” from the negotiations “by committing genocide and a new humanitarian disaster in Rafah.” Rafah is the last major urban center where the Israeli army has not yet penetrated. The city, which saw its population quintuple in a few weeks, has transformed into a gigantic makeshift camp where the humanitarian aid arriving via Egypt is insufficient. The population is seeing food prices soar.

Multiple warnings

Abroad, several countries have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the event of an assault on the city. France asked to avoid a “disaster”. “A large-scale Israeli offensive in Rafah would create a catastrophic humanitarian situation of a new dimension and unjustifiable,” responded Sunday the deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Christophe Lemoine. “In order to avoid disaster, we reiterate our call for an end to the fighting,” he added in a statement. The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, fears “an indescribable humanitarian catastrophe”.

Israel’s most faithful ally, even if Joe Biden on Thursday deemed his response to the October 7 attack “excessive”, the United States indicated that it would not “support” a large-scale operation in Rafah. “Carrying out such an operation now without planning and without thought in an area housing a million people would be a disaster,” the US State Department warned a few days ago. A message directly hammered out on Sunday by the American president to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a telephone call, Joe Biden “reaffirmed his opinion that a military operation in Rafah should not take place without a credible and achievable plan to guarantee the security (…) of the more than a million people “taking refuge there,” the White House said in a statement.

The United Arab Emirates expressed “deep concern,” and Qatar “strongly condemned” Israel’s threats over Rafah. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, headquartered in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, denounced the “attempts to forcefully expel the Palestinian people from their lands”. Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi called for Israel to be excluded from the UN, saying the Gaza offensive was “a crime against humanity”. In Rabat, thousands of Moroccans marched on Sunday in support of the Palestinian people.

“A secure passage”

Responding to these fears, Netanyahu assured in his interview with ABC News that Israel will guarantee “safe passage for the civilian population so that they can leave” the city, remaining vague on the places where civilians could take refuge. He briefly discussed areas north of Rafah that have been cleared and could be used.

Even if contacts, with the mediation of Egypt and Qatar, are not broken, Israeli projects remove the possibility of a truce which seemed within reach just a few days ago. A ceasefire would allow a new exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, like the one carried out in November when 105 hostages and 240 detainees were released. Around 250 people were kidnapped in Israel on October 7 and taken to Gaza.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said Sunday that two hostages were dead and eight others seriously injured in bombings in recent days. These continued on Sunday around Khan Younes, in the north of the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army has been tracking Hamas fighters for several weeks.

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