Rafah: Smoke billows from buildings after Israeli strikes on Rafah in the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. Israel sent tanks into Rafah, seizing control of the border crossing with Egypt.—AFP
Rafah: Smoke billows from buildings after Israeli strikes on Rafah in the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. Israel sent tanks into Rafah, seizing control of the border crossing with Egypt.—AFP

• UN chief urges Israel to halt escalation, open key crossings
• Palestinian Authority calls on US to ‘intervene immediately’
• Hamas official says Cairo talks ‘last chance’ for Tel Aviv to free prisoners

RAFAH: Israel sent tanks into Rafah in southern Gaza, seizing control of the border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday, an operation the UN said denied it access to the key humanitarian passage.

The military’s thrust into the eastern sector of the city packed with displaced civilians came with negotiators and mediators due in Cairo in the latest effort towards a prisoner release and ceasefire in the seven-month-old Israeli offensive.

A senior Hamas official, requesting anonymity to discuss the negotiations, warned that it would be Israel’s “last chance” to free the estimated 128 prisoners still held in the Palestinian territory, including 35 the military says are dead.

A Hamas delegation was headed “shortly” to Cairo, the official said. Israel has said it would also send negotiators, and mediator Qatar announced it was dispatching a team as well.

The long-threatened Rafah operation began hours after Hamas announced late on Monday it had accepted a truce proposal, prompting cheering crowds to take to the streets despite Israel saying it was “far” from plans it had previously agreed to. Army footage showed tanks flying the Israeli flag taking “operational control” of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, the military said, in a deployment that had a “very limited scope against very specific targets”.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Tuesday Israel was prepared to “deepen” its Gaza operation if truce talks fail to secure the release of prisoners held there by Hamas fighters.

Earlier, the Palestinian Authority called on the United States to “intervene immediately” to prevent Israel from invading Rafah, the official Palestinian WAFA news agency reported on Tuesday.

UN humanitarian office spokesman Jens Laerke said Israel had denied it access to both Rafah and Kerem Shalom — the other main Gaza aid crossing, on the border with Israel — with only “one day of fuel available” inside the besieged territory.

At the UN, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Israel to “stop any escalation” and to “immediately” reopen the crossings. “The closure of both… crossings is especially damaging to an already dire humanitarian situation”, Mr Guterres said, warning that “a full-scale assault on Rafah will be a human catastrophe”.

‘Permanent ceasefire’

Hamas on Monday said it had told Egyptian and Qatari officials of its “approval of their proposal regarding a ceasefire”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the proposal was “far from Israel’s essential demands”, but the government would still send negotiators for talks.

In the meantime, it added, Israel is continuing the operation in Rafah to exert military pressure on Hamas in order to advance the release of prisoners.

Close Israeli ally the United States said it was “reviewing” the Hamas response.

Hamas member Khalil al-Hayya told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel that the proposal agreed to by Hamas involved a three-phase truce. It included a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the return of Palestinians displaced by the war and a prisoner exchange, with the goal of a “permanent ceasefire”, he said.

International alarm

International alarm has been building about the consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, where the United Nations says 1.4 million people are sheltering.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed concern that an attack on Rafah began despite warnings from the European Union and the United States. “I am afraid that this is going to cause again a lot of casualties, civilian casualties,” he said.

Egypt urged Israel to “exercise the utmost restraint”, while the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned Israel’s “criminal aggression”.

In a conversation with Netanyahu on Monday, US President Joe Biden restated “his clear position” opposing an invasion of Rafah, the White House said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged “protection” for civilians in Rafah. “A million people cannot simply vanish into thin air,” she said in a post on X, calling for “more humanitarian aid urgently”.

Medical charity Doctors Without Bord­ers (MSF) said it had begun discharging patients from a field hospital in Rafah and was preparing “for a possible evacuation”.

Turkish Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz said the Israeli operation in Rafah marks another war crime by Israel. “By carrying out a ground attack on Rafah, just a day after Hamas approved Qatar and Egypt’s proposal for a ceasefire deal, Israel has added another to the war crimes it has committed in Palestinian territories since October 7,” Mr Yilmaz said on X.

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2024

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