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Israel ignores int’l outcry to set deadline for Rafah assault

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Israel ignored a growing international outctry to threaten an invasion of southern Gaza’s Rafah by March if Hamas did not return the remaining Israeli captives.

Displaced Palestinian children stand in front of a tent in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 18, 2024. (AFP Photo)
Displaced Palestinian children stand in front of a tent in Raf  southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 18, 2024. (AFP Photo)

The planned offensive, which now looks even more likely, will coincide with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when the faithful observe daylong fasting.

With prospects for truce talks dimmed, the U.S. and other governments, as well as the United Nations, have issued increasingly urgent appeals to spare Rafah, where over a million Palestinians have sought shelter from Israel’s war.

The Israeli government says the city on the Egypt border is the last remaining stronghold in Gaza of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

But it is also where three-quarters of the displaced Palestinian population has fled, taking shelter in sprawling tent encampments without access to adequate food, water or medicine.

“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 retired military chief of staff, 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,” added Gantz, a member of the three-person war Cabinet.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is expected to begin around March 10.

Gantz said the offensive will be carried out in coordination with American and Egyptian partners to “minimize the civilian casualties as much as possible.”

But where Palestinians can go after four months of war have flattened vast swathes of the Strip remains unclear.

A Palestinian family makes bread in their tent in the Rafah camp, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, Feb. 18, 2024. (EPA Photo)
A displaced Palestinian boy, who fled his house due to Israeli strikes, stands by a fence at a tent camp in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, Feb. 18, 2024. (Reuters Photo)

‘Total victory’

For weeks, international mediators have sought to broker a truce-for-hostages deal that would pause fighting for six weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played down the possibility of an impending breakthrough, calling Hamas’ demands “delusional.”

Even if a deal is struck, he insists the campaign to eliminate Hamas from Gaza will not be completed until clearing Rafah.

“Deal or no deal, we have to finish the job to get total victory,” he said at the Jerusalem conference Sunday.

With international pressure piling on Israel, the U.N.’s top court will open a week of hearings from Monday examining the legal consequences of the country’s 57-year occupation of Palestinian territories.

The hearings, requested by the U.N. General Assembly, are separate from South Africa’s high-profile case accusing Israel of committing genocide in its current Gaza offensive.

At the U.N.’s Security Council, the United States signaled it would veto the latest U.N. draft resolution seeking an immediate cease-fire should it come to a vote this week.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the resolution would jeopardize the ongoing truce talks, as well as the broader aim of “an enduring resolution of hostilities.”

Western governments have increasingly pushed for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state to be part of that wider peace process, but Israel’s government Sunday unanimously adopted a declaration rejecting such recognition.

“After the terrible massacre of Oct. 7, there can be no greater reward for terrorism than that and it will prevent any future peace settlement,” Netanyahu said.

Hamas has meanwhile threatened to suspend its involvement in any cease-fire negotiations unless relief supplies reach Gaza’s north, where aid agencies have warned of looming famine.


A Palestinian boy has his arm measured for malnutrition at a medical tent in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, Feb. 14, 2024. (Reuters Photo)
A Palestinian boy has his arm measured for malnutrition at a medical tent in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, Feb. 14, 2024. (Reuters Photo)

‘Crying from hunger’

On Sunday morning, dozens of Israelis blocked Gaza-bound aid trucks from entering through the Nitzana crossing with Egypt, AFP reporters and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said.

Gazans say they are going so hungry they are grinding animal feed into flour.

“My children are starving, they wake up crying from hunger. Where do I get food for them?” a northern Gazan woman told AFP.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said nearly three in four people are drinking contaminated water.

“The speed of deterioration in Gaza is unprecedented,” it said.

After a weeklong siege, the largest hospital still functional in Gaza is no longer operational, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

At least 20 of the 200 patients still at the Nasser Hospital urgently require relocation to other facilities, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that his organization “was not permitted to enter” the site.

Seven patients, including a child, have died there since Friday due to power cuts, and “70 medical staff including intensive care doctors” have been arrested, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said diesel and oxygen supplies had been delivered on Saturday and a temporary generator was running.

Israeli troops in Khan Younis were still operating around the hospital Sunday after the military claimed it had “located additional weapons.”

Israel has concentrated its military operations in Khan Younis, just a few kilometers from Rafah and the hometown of Hamas’ Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, who is accused of orchestrating the Oct. 7 incursion that killed about 1,160 people in Israel.

Resistance groups also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel’s indiscriminate military campaign in Gaza, in comparison, has killed at least 28,985 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Health Ministry.