Rafah invasion imminent, UN warns

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, on 30 April.

Omar Ashtawy APA images

Palestinian human rights groups say that Israel has escalated its attacks in Rafah, southern Gaza, where approximately 1.3 million people, the vast majority of them displaced from other areas in the territory, are now concentrated.

Israel has also intensified artillery shelling in the eastern area of Rafah in what Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights describe as a campaign of intimidation aimed at compelling a new wave of forced displacement ahead of a large-scale military assault on Rafah.

More than 40 Palestinians, including 13 children and 12 women, were killed during intensified Israeli attacks on Rafah between 26 and 29 April, according to the rights groups.

A baby less than a week old was killed when Israeli warplanes targeted a home belonging to the al-Khawaja family in Rafah’s al-Shabura refugee camp. Nine people were killed in the attack, the majority of them Palestinians displaced from the Gaza City area and Deir al-Balah, central Gaza.

The deadly strikes on the al-Khawaja family home, and several other residences in Rafah, occurred without warning.

In another case, a Palestinian man was killed in a strike that involved a warning.

Khaled Hameed, a 43-year-old with a speaking disability, was killed when Israeli warplanes bombed the al-Ghalban family home southeast of Rafah on 26 April. Hameed was inside of his home next to the one that was targeted at the time of the attack.

“Before the bombing, Israeli forces contacted one of the neighbors, instructing them to evacuate nearby houses,” the rights groups said.

Flight to al-Mawasi

The threat of shelling has led to tens of thousands of people moving from Rafah to already overcrowded al-Mawasi, an area of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, where displaced people have set up tents or makeshift nylon shelters on farmland, roadsides and along the coast without basic infrastructure.

More than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October and nearly 78,000 injured, according to the health ministry in the territory. Thousands of others remain buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings or are missing.

The three Palestinian human rights groups called for urgent intervention to prevent an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah and to “secure the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and ensure the unhindered provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”

The groups called for “diplomatic, economic and individual sanctions, and a two-way arms embargo” to pressure Israel to comply with its international obligations, including orders to halt genocidal acts from the UN’s World Court and a ceasefire demanded by the Security Council.

Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, warned this week that a ground operation in Rafah “is on the immediate horizon.”

He said that an invasion of the area would “be nothing short of a tragedy beyond words” and it would “strike a disastrous blow” against efforts by “agencies struggling to provide humanitarian aid.”

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

“Extraordinarily deep anxiety”

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, described “an extraordinarily deep anxiety prevailing” in Gaza over the question of a ground offensive in Rafah.

“And the likelihood of a military offensive all depends on whether or not a ceasefire deal will be reached this week,” Lazzarini said on Tuesday.

“Just to let you know that people have not yet been asked to evacuate from Rafah,” he added. “But there is a sense that if there is no deal this week, this can happen at any time.”

Hamas said on Thursday that it was sending a delegation to Egypt for further ceasefire talks and was studying Israel’s latest proposal.

But a seemingly unbridgeable impasse remains.

Hamas demands a permanent end to Israel’s war while Israel has indicated only a willingness to “the restoration of sustainable calm” to secure the release of the remaining captives in Gaza.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, reportedly told Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, that Rafah will be invaded if Hamas continues to condition a deal on a full ceasefire.

Washington says it opposes an Israeli incursion into Rafah without a credible plan to protect civilians, which humanitarian groups say is all but impossible.

The Biden administration has refused to apply anything other than rhetorical pressure on Israel to thwart an assault on Rafah and the Pentagon has presented Israel with a supposedly alternative, phased approach to dismantling Hamas’ battalions in the area.

Netanyahu, who seeks to prolong the war to hold onto political power and delay his criminal trial over charges of corruption, has repeatedly insisted that Israel will invade Rafah regardless of any deal.

No alternative strategy

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, admitted on Tuesday that the administration has no other strategy for ending the war in Gaza besides indirect talks that have repeatedly reached a stalemate.

Netanyahu’s government is coming under pressure from other sources, with Colombia cutting off diplomatic ties with Israel in protest over the Gaza genocide, and Turkey halting exports and imports to and from Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders appear to be convinced that arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court targeting senior officials are imminent, creating an “atmosphere of panic” among its foreign ministry diplomats.

Israeli leaders are coming to the late realization that the catastrophic violence wrought on Gaza will come at a cost to the country’s international standing, particularly after the targeted killing of several aid workers with World Central Kitchen, including a nationals of the US, UK and Australia – Israel’s closest allies.

Unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe

Even if a ceasefire deal is reached in the coming days, an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe remains.

Three quarters of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes, and nearly two-thirds of all housing in the territory has been destroyed.

UN officials say that it could take 14 years to remove the rubble and unexploded ordnance where houses, schools, universities, mosques, commercial towers and other infrastructure once stood.

More than a million Palestinians in Gaza are experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger, according to the World Food Program, and more than two dozen children have already died from malnutrition and thirst since February, the health ministry said.

Rebuilding destroyed homes in Gaza will take at least until 2040 in a best-case scenario but would be drawn out for decades if reconstruction is conducted at the same pace that followed Israel’s previous major destructive assaults, according to a UN report.

Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza, which began almost seven months ago, has thrust “nearly 1.74 million additional people into poverty,” according to UN estimates.

Achim Steiner, an administrator for the UN Development Program, said the projections from a new assessment “warn that the suffering in Gaza will not end when the war does.”


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.