International pressure mounts for deal between Israel and Hamas

International pressure intensified Tuesday for a truce agreement between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas including a new release of hostages, after the Israeli announcement of an upcoming offensive on Rafah, the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.

Egypt, traditional mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, welcomes the American and Israeli intelligence directors as well as the Qatari Prime Minister on Tuesday to “work towards a truce in the Gaza Strip”, according to Egyptian media.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently ordered his army to prepare an offensive on Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are massed, according to the UN, more than half of the territory’s total population, most of them having fled the war that has been raging for four months. He repeated on Monday his determination to continue “military pressure until complete victory” on Hamas, of which Rafah is the “last bastion”, to free “all our hostages”.

A few hours earlier, Israel had released two hostages, Israeli-Argentinians, in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, during a night operation accompanied by bombings which left around a hundred dead, according to Hamas authorities, in power in Gaza since 2007.

The Israeli army announced Tuesday the death of three soldiers in fighting in the Gaza Strip, bringing to 232 the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the start of its ground operation on October 27.

“Unbearable” humanitarian situation

The United States, Israel’s main ally, opposes a large-scale operation without a solution for civilians stuck on the closed border with Egypt in the far south of the territory. US President Joe Biden called on Israel for a “credible” plan to spare civilians in Rafah who are “exposed and vulnerable”, during a meeting Monday at the White House with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

“We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah”, where the humanitarian situation is already “unbearable”, said Abdallah II, who called for “an immediate lasting ceasefire” in Gaza. China, for its part, also called on Israel on Tuesday to stop its military operation in Rafah “as quickly as possible,” in order to “prevent an even more serious humanitarian catastrophe.”

The war was sparked on October 7 by an unprecedented attack by Hamas commandos infiltrated from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,160 people, the majority civilians killed that day. , according to an AFP count based on official Israeli data.

In retaliation, the Israeli government has vowed to annihilate the Islamist movement, which it considers a “terrorist” organization, along with the United States and the European Union. The Israeli offensive left 28,473 people dead in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the Hamas government’s Health Ministry. According to Israel, 130 hostages are still in Gaza, 29 of whom are believed to have died, out of around 250 people kidnapped on October 7. A week-long truce in November allowed the release of 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians detained by Israel.

” On the moon ? »

In Cairo, CIA boss William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatar’s head of government, Mohammed bin Abdelrahmane Al-Thani, discuss a truce with Egyptian leaders, according to AlQahera News television , close to Egyptian intelligence. “Hamas and the other Palestinian movements are awaiting the results of the Cairo talks,” one of its executives told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Faced with international fears of a major military offensive, Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would open “a secure passage” to the population to leave Rafah, without specifying to which destination. “They are going to evacuate” the Palestinians: “Where? On the moon ? », asked the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell in Brussels.

Palestinian families, many already displaced several times and fearing having to move again, began on Tuesday to dismantle their tents and gather their belongings. “We fled the north with nothing, then we went to Khan Younès with still nothing,” said Ismaïl Joundiyah, a displaced person. “This time, we want to be ready.”

The UN will not be associated with “a forced population displacement” in Rafah, warned Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary General. Germany called on Israel on Tuesday to guarantee safe passages for the protection of civilians in Rafah, where two Al Jazeera journalists were seriously injured in an Israeli strike, according to the Qatari channel.

Hamas said in a statement on Tuesday that a forced evacuation of Rafah would lead to a “crime” against the people there, calling for “international protection”. Around 1.7 million people, according to the UN, out of a total of 2.4 million inhabitants, have fled their homes since October 7 in the Palestinian territory besieged by Israel and plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.

Rafah, which has become a gigantic encampment, is the main entry point for humanitarian aid, insufficient to meet the needs of the population who live in “conditions close to famine”, according to the World Food Program (WFP).

Concerns are also growing about the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), accused by Israel of being “infiltrated by Hamas”, and whose contributions have been frozen by several countries. including the United States and Germany. Its boss, Philippe Lazzarini, estimated Tuesday that dismantling this organization would be a “disaster”, and the director of Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian agency estimated that freezing funds would risk increasing the number of deaths.

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