UN, aid urgencies urge Israel to halt Rafah assault after crossing seized

UN and aid agencies urge Israel to halt a Rafah incursion with Gaza in the midst of famine, needing urgent aid.

Smoke rises after Israeli attacks as Israeli forces launch a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah, in southern Gaza [Hatem Khaled/Reuters]

The United Nations and aid agencies have slammed the Israeli army for cutting off an essential aid route by seizing the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza, warning that already scarce supplies will be further depleted in the enclave that is on the brink of famine.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a potential collapse in the aid flow to Palestinians from the closure of Rafah and the other main crossing into Gaza, Karem Abu Salem.

Officials from the UN have already raised the alarm that northern Gaza is experiencing a “full-blown famine”.

“The closure of both the Rafah and Kerem Shalom [Karem Abu Salem] crossings is especially damaging to an already dire humanitarian situation. They must be reopened immediately,” Guterres said on Tuesday.

Israel sent ground forces into Rafah and took control of the Palestinian side of the crossing hours after Hamas said it had accepted a ceasefire proposal put forward by Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Israel said the proposal fell short of its requirements and that it would send a delegation to meet the mediators.

Israeli army footage showed tanks rolling through the Rafah crossing complex and the Israeli flag raised on the Gaza side on Tuesday.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the Rafah operation would continue until Israel “eliminates” Hamas in the city and the rest of Gaza.

But he said Israel is willing to make “compromises” to bring captives home. “If that option is removed, we will go on and ‘deepen’ the operation,” he said. “This will happen all over the Strip – in the south, in the centre and in the north.”

Guterres warned an assault on Rafah, where more than 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, would “be a strategic mistake, a political calamity and a humanitarian nightmare”.

Amnesty International called on the international community to pressure Israel to immediately halt its ground operations in Rafah and ensure unfettered access for humanitarian aid in Gaza.

The group’s senior director of research, advocacy, policy and campaigns, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said Israel’s long-threatened, large-scale ground operation in Rafah would further compound “the unspeakable suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza”.

‘It’s not safe’

Red Crescent sources in Egypt said aid shipments via the Rafah crossing had completely halted on Tuesday.

“The Israeli occupation has sentenced the residents of the Strip to death,” said Hisham Edwan, a spokesperson for the Gaza Border Crossing Authority.

In Geneva, UN humanitarian office spokesperson Jens Laerke said “panic and despair” were gripping the people in Rafah.

He said that under international law, people must have adequate time to prepare for an evacuation and have a safe route to a safe area with access to aid. This was not the case in the Rafah evacuation, he said.

“It’s littered with unexploded ordnance, massive bombs lying in the street. It’s not safe,” he said.

An Israeli government spokesperson said that aid is continuing to flow into the enclave despite the military operation.

Israel sends delegation to Cairo

The seizure of the crossing comes after weeks of pressure from several of Israel’s key Western allies to hold off from a ground assault on Rafah if there is no plan for the safe evacuation of civilians.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the operation along the border in eastern Rafah was not a full-on invasion of the city that United States President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned against on humanitarian grounds.

He said Israel had described it as “an operation of limited scale and duration” aimed at cutting off alleged Hamas arms smuggling.

But many of the people now in Rafah were struggling to find a safe place to go in the tiny strip of land, which has been bombarded almost non-stop since October 7.

Families have been crammed into tented camps and makeshift shelters, suffering from shortages of food, water, medicine and other essentials.

Residents said Israeli tanks and planes attacked several areas and houses in Rafah overnight on Monday and Tuesday. The Gaza Ministry of Health said Israeli attacks across the enclave had killed 54 Palestinians and wounded 96 others in the past 24 hours.

At least 34,789 Palestinians have been now killed in the assault, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Ceasefire talks to resume

Late on Tuesday, Hamas said in a statement that a delegation headed by Khalil al-Hayya, a member of the group’s political bureau, had arrived in Cairo to discuss the ceasefire proposal.

Egypt’s state-linked Al-Qahera News reported that “all parties” including Israel had agreed to resume talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier his country’s delegation was already in Cairo.

Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan said Israel’s attack on the Rafah border crossing was an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hinder agreement on and implementation of a ceasefire.

“Invading and attacking the Rafah crossing by [Israeli forces] with predetermination by Netanyahu is an attempt to hinder the implementation of the agreement to stop the attack on our people. It’s a desperate attempt to create a pseudo-victory that can save some face for Netanyahu,” he said. “This will never be achieved.”

Any truce would be the first pause in fighting since a week-long ceasefire in November during which Hamas freed dozens of captives and Israel released 240 Palestinians it was holding in its jails.

Since then, efforts to reach a new truce have floundered over Hamas’s demand for a permanent end to the war and Israel’s insistence that it would only consider a temporary pause in its assault.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies