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UN warns of ‘tragedy beyond words’ if Israel attacks Rafah

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The United Nations has reiterated its warning against a likely Israeli ground invasion into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, saying any such operation would be a great tragedy.

A child stands behind barbed-wire along a slope near a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, April 30, 2024. (AFP Photo)
A child stands behind barbed-wire along a slope near a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, April 30, 2024. (AFP Photo)

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for states with influence over Israel “to do everything in their power” to prevent an Israeli assault on Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than 1.5 million displaced Gaza Palestinians are sheltering.

A ground operation by Israeli troops in Rafah would be a “tragedy beyond words,” the U.N.’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement Tuesday.

“The simplest truth is that a ground operation in Rafah will be nothing short of a tragedy beyond words. No humanitarian plan can counter that,” Griffiths said, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to launch an offensive on Rafah.

With Hamas weighing a truce plan proposed in Cairo talks with the U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators, Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to launch the assault on Rafah “with or without a deal.”

Washington has joined calls on Israel from other countries and humanitarian organizations to spare the city for fear an army incursion would lead to massive civilian casualties.

“The world has been appealing to the Israeli authorities for weeks to spare Rafah, but a ground operation there is on the immediate horizon,” said Griffiths.

No excuse

Israel pledged nearly a month ago to improve aid access to the enclave of 2.3 million people after U.S. President Joe Biden demanded steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, saying the U.S. could place conditions on support if Israel did not act.

Guterres told reporters that there had been “incremental progress” toward averting “an entirely preventable, human-made famine” in northern Gaza, but much more was urgently needed.

“These improvements in bringing more aid into Gaza cannot be used to prepare for or justify a full-blown military assault on Rafah,” Griffiths said.

“For the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled to Gaza’s southernmost point to escape disease, famine, mass graves and direct fighting, a ground invasion would spell even more trauma and death,” he added.

“For agencies struggling to provide humanitarian aid despite the active hostilities, impassable roads, unexploded ordnance, fuel shortages, delays at checkpoints, and Israeli restrictions, a ground invasion would strike a disastrous blow.”

“We are in a race to stave off hunger and death, and we are losing,” Griffiths added.

Guterres, meanwhile, specifically called on Israel to follow through on its promise to open two crossings to the north.

“A major obstacle to distributing aid across Gaza is the lack of security for humanitarians and the people we serve. Humanitarian convoys, facilities and personnel, and the people in need must not be targets,” Guterres told reporters.

No alternative to land

A U.N.-backed report in March said famine was imminent and likely by May in northern Gaza, and could spread across the enclave by July. Guterres said the most vulnerable in the north “are already dying of hunger and disease.”

When asked what leverage the U.S. could use over its ally Israel to boost aid access and avert a Rafah assault, Guterres said: “It is very important to put all possible pressure in order to avoid what would be an absolutely devastating tragedy.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he will discuss with Netanyahu on Wednesday measures that Israel still needs to take to increase the flow of aid into Gaza.

“I strongly encourage the government of Israel and the Hamas leadership to reach now an agreement,” Guterres said. “Without that, I fear the war, with all its consequences both in Gaza and across the region, will worsen exponentially.”

The U.N. is in talks with the U.S. about a floating pier it is constructing to allow maritime aid deliveries to Gaza from Cyprus. Guterres said: “We welcome aid delivery by air and sea, but there is no alternative to the massive use of land routes.”

Israel launched its genocidal war on Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion last year resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people and hostage taking of 250 others, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive, in comparison, has killed at least 34,535 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Health Ministry.