Hamas agrees to Gaza truce as Israel vows to move into Rafah

Displaced Palestinians in al-Zawayda, central Gaza, following Israel’s evacuation orders imposed on eastern Rafah, 6 May.

Omar Ashtawy APA images

Israel dropped leaflets ordering the evacuation of several neighborhoods of eastern Rafah and pounded the area in the southernmost Gaza Strip on Monday.

Israel described its current escalation in Rafah as a “targeted” operation following a rocket attack from Gaza that killed four of its soldiers at a military position near Kerem Shalom, the main commercial crossing along the Gaza-Israel boundary, the previous day.

Palestinians reported “nonstop” bombing and the movement of Israeli tanks across from eastern Rafah overnight Monday.

Al Mezan, a human rights group based in Gaza, said that the new evacuation order, reportedly affecting around 100,000 Palestinians, includes the areas of Rafah crossing and Kerem Shalom – the two points through which most humanitarian assistance is being brought into the territory.

It also includes al-Najjar hospital, “the main medical facility in the whole Rafah governorate,” Al Mezan added.

Israeli warplanes fired on 10 houses in eastern Rafah, killing 20 people, overnight Sunday.

Palestinians in Rafah reported receiving threatening phone calls ordering them to evacuate. Many if not most of those in the areas that Israel is seeking to depopulate have been repeatedly displaced during the past seven months.

“More war and famine”

Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief, said that “Israel’s evacuation orders to civilians in Rafah portend the worst: more war and famine.”

He said that Israel must implement the UN Security Council’s demand for a ceasefire and that the EU “can and must act to prevent such [a] scenario.”

Israel has escalated its attacks on Rafah, where some 1.3 million Palestinians are concentrated after being displaced from other areas in Gaza, over the past week.

The worsened violence, killing dozens of civilians in residential homes, has raised fears that a ground invasion that “could lead to slaughter,” in the words of the UN humanitarian affairs office, may be imminent.

Hamas accepts, Israel rejects truce offer

On Monday evening, Hamas announced that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the faction’s political wing, had accepted a proposed outline for a ceasefire agreement in a phone call with the Qatari prime minister and Egyptian intelligence minister.

Al Jazeera reported that the proposal involves “three phases, with each lasting 42 days.”

The first phase would see a truce and Israel’s withdrawal from the Netzarim corridor which Israel has used to control movement between northern and southern Gaza.

The second phase would “include the approval of a permanent cessation of military and hostile operations, and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.”

The third and final phase would include “a provision approving an end to the blockade of Gaza,” which Israel imposed in 2007.

On Monday, Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya told Al Jazeera – whose offices in Jerusalem were shut down the previous day following a vote by Netanyahu’s cabinet – that a prisoner exchange would be hammered out by day 35 of the truce.

Israel swiftly rejected the Egyptian and Qatari proposal, saying that it “included ‘far-reaching conclusions’ ” that it couldn’t accept, according to Reuters.

Late Monday, Netanyahu’s war cabinet unanimously decided to continue the military operation in Rafah “in order to apply military pressure on Hamas, with the goal of making progress on freeing the hostages and the other war aims,” the prime minister’s office stated.

Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel will invade Rafah regardless of any ceasefire agreement.

Israeli analyst Yossi Verter, writing for the Haaretz newspaper, accused Netanyahu of sabotaging – not for the first time – the ceasefire negotiations that would secure the release of the remaining captives held in Gaza since 7 October.

Verter said that Netanyahu had betted on Hamas rejecting the Egyptian and Qatari proposal in order to preserve his ruling coalition. By continuing the war to prolong his doomed political career, Netanyahu is risking not only the lives of the captives in Gaza but is also cementing Israel’s status as a global pariah, according to Verter.

He’s not the only observer to say that Netanyahu’s actions are sabotaging an agreement.

An unnamed Israeli official told The New York Times that a deal with Hamas had become nearer in recent days, but Netanyahu’s “statements about Rafah had compelled Hamas to harden its demands in an attempt to ensure that Israeli forces won’t enter the city,” according to the report.

Netanyahu’s comments prompted Hamas to seek “further guarantees that Israel would not implement only part of an agreement, and then resume fighting,” the paper added.

An unnamed US official told Reuters that “Netanyahu and the war cabinet have not appeared to approach the latest phase of negotiations [with Hamas] in good faith.”

Sticking point

Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas spokesperson, said on Saturday that the major sticking point in the truce talks was “the complete ceasefire, and the complete withdrawal from Gaza,” which Hamas demands and Israel rejects.

Hamdan said that only the US would be able to leverage pressure on Israel to accept a deal to end the bloodshed in Gaza, where around 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in just over 200 days.

The ball is now in Washington’s court to prevent Israel from reneging on its commitments, according to Hamdan’s analysis.

During a press briefing on Monday, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that a ceasefire is “absolutely achievable” and that “a major operation in Rafah is not something that we can support.”

But Miller did not say what, if any, actions the US would take if Israel moves forward with such an operation. He observed that any military offensive in Rafah would make it “incredibly difficult” to increase aid, as Washington would like to see.

Israeli officials told Axios that the Biden administration recently put a hold on the transfer of ammunition to Israel, with US officials declining to comment on the matter.

Washington has consistently said that it opposes a major operation in Rafah without a viable plan to ensure the protection of civilians. The Pentagon has presented to Israel what it says is an alternative, phased approach to Israel’s stated goal of dismantling four Hamas battalions in the area.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that “a mass evacuation on this scale is impossible to carry out safely.”

Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, said that the UN “is not taking part in any involuntary evacuations or in setting up of any displacement zones in southern Gaza.”

UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, which is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in Gaza, said that it is not evacuating from Rafah.
The agency heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate northern Gaza in the earlier phase of the genocide. Palestinian human rights and humanitarian organizations excoriated this decision, calling it an abandonment of the principles of international humanitarian law and saying that it facilitated Israel’s depopulation of the area.

On Monday, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called for “an immediate arms embargo, sanctions and divestments.”

Commenting on the ban on Al Jazeera, which she described as “the only media company reporting on the massacres” in Gaza, Albanese asked: “Is there any line left that Israel cannot cross?”


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.