06 May 2024, 21:53

Israel's Rafah evacuation order sparks global alarm

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories, May 6, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Israel called on Palestinians to leave eastern Rafah Monday ahead of a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city, amid increasing global alarm about the consequences of such a move.

The evacuation call followed disagreement between Israel and Hamas over the Palestinian Hamas's demands to end the seven-month war, during weekend negotiations in Cairo.

Egyptian state-linked media said the talks stalled after a rocket attack claimed by Hamas's armed wing killed four Israeli soldiers on Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to send ground troops into Rafah regardless of any truce, defying international concerns.

US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu were to speak later Monday, the White House said.

"We have made our views clear on a major ground invasion of Rafah to the Israeli government, and the president will speak with the prime minister today," a spokesman for the National Security Council told AFP.

"We continue to believe that a hostage deal is the best way to preserve the lives of the hostages, and avoid an invasion of Rafah, where more than a million people are sheltering.

"Those talks are ongoing now."

Hamas said Israel was planning a large-scale offensive "without regard for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe" in the besieged Gaza Strip or for the fate of hostages held there.

A Palestinian presidency statement called on Washington to prevent a "massacre" in Rafah.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi posted on X: "Another massacre of the Palestinians is in the making... All must act now to prevent it."

UNICEF warned that around 600,000 children packed into Rafah face "further catastrophe".

Israel's "limited" and temporary evacuation order aimed "to get people out of harm's way" and followed the deadly rocket fire that Israel's military said came from an area adjacent to Rafah.

Gazan civil defence and aid officials said Israeli jets had struck areas of Rafah including Al-Shuka and Al-Salam, both of which had been told to evacuate.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said "thousands" of Gazans were on the move, leaving eastern Rafah.

In a statement, the Israeli military urged residents of eastern Rafah to head for the "expanded humanitarian area" at Al-Mawasi on the coast.

That area "includes field hospitals, tents and increased amounts of food, water, medication and additional supplies," it said.

But aid groups said the Israeli-designated safe zone was not ready for an influx of people.

"The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services", said Norwegian Refugee Council director Jan Egeland.

The main aid group in Gaza, UNRWA, said "an Israeli offensive in Rafah would mean more civilian suffering and deaths".

The UN agency "is not evacuating", it added.

Asked how many people should move, an Israeli military spokesman said: "The estimate is around 100,000 people."

The Red Crescent said the designated evacuation zone hosts around 250,000 people, many of them already uprooted from elsewhere.

- 'Where can we go?' -

Abdul Rahman Abu Jazar, 36, said the area his family was told to seek refuge in "does not have enough room for us to make tents" because it is already full.

"Where we can go?" he asked.

On Monday EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called the evacuation orders "unacceptable" and urged Israel to "renounce" a ground offensive.

The French foreign ministry said it "strongly opposed" an offensive on Rafah.

Gaza's bloodiest-ever war began following Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel estimates that 128 of the hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza, including 35 whom the military says are dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has conducted a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,735 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

About 1.2 million people are sheltering in Rafah, according to the World Health Organization.

- Repeatedly bombed -

Soon after the war started, Israel told Palestinians in northern Gaza to move south to "safe zones" -- including Rafah near the Egyptian border.

But Rafah has been repeatedly bombed -- including on Monday after the evacuation order -- and Palestinians say nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Emergency workers said air strikes killed 16 people in Rafah on Sunday, hours after Hamas rocket fire killed the Israeli soldiers in the Kerem Shalom border crossing area.

The strike led Israeli authorities to close the crossing, used to deliver aid, and in response the military said warplanes destroyed launchers from which they were fired.

Al-Qahera News, linked to Egyptian intelligence services, cited a high-level source on Monday as saying the rocket attack "caused truce negotiations to bog down".

- 'Breakdown' -

Despite the evacuation order, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif al-Qanou told AFP the movement "will continue the negotiations positively".

CIA director Bill Burns, a mediator in the talks, was expected in Doha to meet Qatar's premier for "emergency" discussions, a source with knowledge of the truce talks told AFP.

The source, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the meeting would try "to see if the talks can be brought back on track".

A Hamas official close to the negotiations said Sunday the group's negotiators were headed from Cairo to Doha for "consultations", after weekend talks -- with no Israeli delegation present -- failed to produce a breakthrough.

Hamas negotiators are due back in Cairo on Tuesday, Al-Qahera News said.

The Qatar-based political chief of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, accused Netanyahu of sabotaging the talks, which Netanyahu's office on Monday called "an absolute lie".

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, told AFP that both the Hamas rocket fire on Sunday, and Israel's evacuation order, can be seen in the context of the truce talks.

"Whenever there's a breakdown, then the violence escalates," he said.

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