Warning of “Srebrenica” in Gaza as Israel seizes Rafah crossing

Palestinians observe destroyed houses following Israeli attacks in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on 7 May.

Rizek Abdeljawad Xinhua

Joy in Gaza over the announcement that Hamas accepted a truce proposal on Monday soon gave way to fear and confusion as the Israeli military began moving into eastern Rafah in the south of the devastated coastal enclave.

A four-month-old baby, Muhammad Saqallah, was among three children killed when Israel bombed a home belonging to the Qeshta family in Rafah on Tuesday afternoon, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

More than 21 Palestinians were killed by Israeli bombing on Tuesday, most of them in Rafah, WAFA reported.

Palestinians in Gaza, where hunger and thirst are widespread following seven months of genocide, have been choked off from receiving aid after Israeli occupation forces took over the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt overnight Monday.

The Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported that “Israel has committed to the United States and Egypt to restrict its operation in Rafah … aiming only to deny Hamas authority over the border crossing that connects Gaza with Egypt.”

The paper added that “the parties agreed that a private American security company will assume management of the crossing after the [Israeli military] concludes its operation.”

During a press conference on Tuesday, senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said that Rafah crossing is and shall remain an Egyptian-Palestinian crossing and rejected the presence of any occupation force.

The closure of the crossings will exacerbate an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, where humanitarian organizations and human rights experts say Israel is using food as a weapon of war.

Cindy McCain, the head of the World Food Program, said in an interview with a US television program aired on Sunday that there is “full-blown famine” in northern Gaza, “and it’s moving its way south.”

The closure of Rafah has prevented sick and injured people from leaving Gaza for medical treatment and blocked the import of medicines.

Al-Najjar hospital evacuated

Meanwhile on Tuesday, patients and medical workers began to flee al-Najjar hospital in Rafah after Israel ordered the evacuation of the area the previous day.

The hospital is currently the only facility in Gaza with a functioning dialysis department for patients with kidney disease, and its closure would immediately endanger the lives of 200 people if it closed, according to the World Health Organization.

Israel shut down nearby Kerem Shalom, the main commercial crossing into Gaza, on Monday after four Israeli soldiers were killed in a rocket attack nearby the previous day.

UN officials said that deliveries via Erez crossing in Gaza’s north, which has been opened for limited supplies in recent days, were insufficient for meeting the needs of Palestinians concentrated in Rafah.

Aid agencies had “pre-stocked some aid within Rafah but said there were very low supplies of water and high-energy nutrition supplies needed to treat malnourished children,” Reuters reported.

The World Food Program said that its stocks in Gaza would only cover people’s needs for one to four days in Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah.

The UN said that Gaza has only a day’s worth of fuel reserves in Gaza, and that with no fuel, the aid operation in the territory would be put “in its grave.”

The heads of three prominent Palestinian human rights groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – called on third states to urgently intervene to stop a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica.

Thousands of men and boys were killed in that town when Bosnian Serb forces overran a UN safe zone in 1995. An international tribunal declared that massacre to be a genocide.

The Palestinian rights groups note reports that Israel is planning a matrix of checkpoints to separate “military age” men from their families and prevent them from fleeing Rafah.

For the past seven months, Israel has obliterated the distinction between civilians and combatants, assimilating men to “active fighter status by default,” as observed by Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel’s “terrorist” fatality count in Gaza suggests that it may be treating all teenage boys as combatants too.

Nearly 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza since 7 October – two-thirds of them women and children. The actual number of dead is estimated to be much higher, as thousands of bodies cannot be recovered from under rubble.

But the worst may be yet to come, the heads of the Palestinian groups warned.

“Nowhere is safe”

On Monday, Israel ordered the evacuation of several neighborhoods in eastern Rafah to what it calls a “humanitarian zone” in coastal al-Mawasi, which is already overcrowded with displaced people lacking access to basic services.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that more than 75 percent of Gaza has been placed under evacuation orders since October.

More than a million Palestinians fled to Rafah after being repeatedly displaced from other areas. Some of those areas, including the neighborhoods that Israel ordered evacuated on Monday, had previously been declared “safe zones” by the military.

Israel has bombed all areas of Gaza regardless of whether its military declared them as “safe zones.” Al-Mawasi has been “repeatedly subjected to airstrikes, including in the last week,” the three Palestinian human rights groups said.

“People have nowhere to go, as nowhere is safe in the entirety of the Gaza Strip,” the rights groups added.

Less than 15 hours after dropping leaflets with evacuation orders, giving families no time to leave, Israeli warplanes intensively bombed Rafah. On Tuesday, Israel called on international organizations to leave the areas where the military is operating.

UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said that it will not be leaving those areas and that the question is whether the agency will be able to continue to deliver assistance if the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings remain closed.

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that “the hundreds of thousands of people who are there would be at imminent risk of death if there is an assault” on Rafah.
A major military operation could not only result in “a slaughter of civilians” but would also deal “an incredible blow to the humanitarian operation” in the entirety of Gaza, with Rafah serving as the hub for aid in the territory.

“Their suffering must end”

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, called for the immediate reopening of the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings on Tuesday, noting that fuel stocks will run out in a matter of hours.

“International humanitarian law is unequivocal: civilians must be protected – whether they leave Rafah or stay in the city,” Guterres said.

“An assault on Rafah would be a strategic mistake, a political calamity and a humanitarian nightmare,” he added, appealing “to all those with influence over Israel to do everything in their power to help avert even more tragedy.”

The heads of the three Palestinian human rights groups warned of an “utter collapse of the already precarious humanitarian aid infrastructure.”

“Moreover, the indispensable and life-saving efforts of humanitarian agencies, already under relentless Israeli assault, will face even graver challenges,” the groups added.

The Palestinian groups called for “a two-way arms embargo, economic sanctions, including freezing the assets of all Israeli government and army officials, as well as travel bans and divestment from all Israeli activities” in the West Bank and Gaza.

The groups also urged states to support efforts towards accountability at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

“After seven months of live-streamed genocide, Palestinians in Gaza have had enough and their suffering must end,” they said.


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.