RAFAH/ GAZA CITY/ JARUSALEM: Hamas has warned Israel that a ground offensive in Rafah would imperil negotiations on a truce and the exchange of captives and prisoners, as United States President Joe Biden said an assault should not go ahead without a “credible” plan to protect civilians in the city.
Aid groups and foreign governments, including Israel’s key ally the US, have voiced deep concern over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to extend ground military operations into the far-southern Gaza city.
Rafah, on the border with Egypt, is the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s relentless bombardment elsewhere in the Gaza Strip in its four-month war against Hamas, triggered by the Palestinian group’s October 7 attack.
“Any attack by the occupation army on the city of Rafah would torpedo the exchange negotiations,” a Hamas leader told media on condition of anonymity.
Netanyahu has told troops to prepare to enter the city that now hosts more than half of Gaza’s total population, spurring concern about the impact on displaced civilians.
A senior Biden administration official said on Sunday that negotiators working on a phased framework deal to release the remaining hostages have made “real progress” over the last few weeks.
The hostage release deal was the main focus of a 45-minute telephone call between Biden and Netanyahu on Sunday, although there were still some “significant” gaps to close, the official said, adding, and “It’s pretty much there.”
Some 1.4 million Palestinians have crowded into Rafah, with many living in tents while food, water and medicine are becoming increasingly scarce.
Netanyahu had told US broadcaster that the Rafah operation would go ahead until Hamas is eliminated, adding Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians wishing to leave.
When pressed about where they could go, Netanyahu said: “You know, the areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there but we are working out a detailed plan.”
Mediators held new talks in Cairo for a pause in the fighting and the release of some of the 132 hostages Israel says are still in Gaza, including 29 thought to be dead.
Hamas seized around 240 hostages on October 7, according to Israeli authorities. Dozens were released during a one-week truce in November.
Hamas’s military wing on Sunday said two hostages had been killed and eight others seriously wounded in Israeli bombardment in recent days.
Netanyahu has faced calls for early elections and mounting protests over his administration’s failure to bring home the hostages. (Int’l News Desk)