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Israel risks ‘disaster’ if it sends troops to Rafah in Gaza, US warns

The United States warned Israel on Thursday that it risks “disaster” if it sends troops to the city of Rafah on the southern edge of Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge.

This photograph taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis during Israeli bombing on February 8, 2024 (AFP).

The warning came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major city in the Gaza Strip that Israeli ground troops have yet to enter. .

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Israel’s military intensified its airstrikes on the city on Thursday as fears of ground fighting grew among the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced from other parts of Gaza now sheltering in tents and bombed buildings.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that a military advance in Rafah would “exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare.”

Heavy fighting continued despite international efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the bloodiest war ever in Gaza, sparked by the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington “has not yet seen any evidence of serious planning” for a ground operation in Rafah.

Noting that Rafah is also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid destined for Gaza, Patel said such an attack was “not something we would support.”

“Carrying out such an operation right now without planning and without thinking… would be a disaster.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed Washington’s concerns directly to Netanyahu during their talks Wednesday in Jerusalem, Patel said.

Publicly, America’s top diplomat warned that any “military operation Israel undertakes must put civilians first.”

Blinken left Israel without guaranteeing a pause in the fighting, concluding his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war began.

AFP journalists reported that Israel carried out at least seven airstrikes overnight in the Rafah area, terrorizing civilians crowded into makeshift shelters and camps.

“These attacks are proof that there is no security in Rafah,” said resident Umm Hassan, 48, whose home was damaged by the bombing of the nearby home of a local police chief.

“Look at the residential unit they just blew up,” he said. “As for Netanyahu’s threat to invade Rafah, we are people of faith. We are not worried. Life is one and God is one.”

Attacks and ground fighting continued across Hamas-ruled territory, now in its fifth month of war, where the Health Ministry said another 130 people were killed in 24 hours.

– Truce negotiations in Cairo –

Blinken wrapped up his fifth tour of the region, where U.S. forces have been involved in related conflicts from Iraq to Yemen.

On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw “room to reach a deal” to stop the fighting and bring the hostages home.

Egypt was prepared to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators in hopes of achieving “calm” in Gaza and an exchange of prisoners and hostages, an Egyptian official said.

The Israeli prime minister had rejected what he called Hamas’ “bizarre demands” in the talks.

Blinken told reporters that Hamas’ counterproposal had offered at least an opportunity “to continue negotiations.”

“Although there are some clear failures in Hamas’s response, we believe it creates space to reach an agreement, and we will work on it tirelessly until we get there,” he said.

Hamas said a delegation led by Khalil al-Hayya, a senior member of the group’s political bureau, was traveling to Cairo.

A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP: “We expect the negotiations to be very complex and difficult.

“But Hamas is open to discussions and the movement is eager to reach a ceasefire,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

– Accusation of “war crime” –

Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 killed about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched airstrikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

The militants also took around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

Months of bombing and siege have deepened the humanitarian crisis, especially in southern Gaza.

“Their living conditions are appalling,” said UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths. “They lack the basic needs to survive, beset by hunger, disease and death.”

UN human rights chief Volker Turk accused Israel of committing a “war crime” by destroying buildings to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza.

Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military needs and carried out in an illegal and senseless manner, amounts to a serious violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a war crime,” he said in a statement.

The Gaza war has led to increased violence across the region by Iranian-backed groups operating in solidarity with Hamas, prompting retaliatory attacks by Israel, the United States and their allies.

A U.S. airstrike in Iraq on Wednesday killed a top commander of a pro-Iran armed group that U.S. Central Command said was “responsible for planning and directly participating in attacks against U.S. forces.”

The attack came after Washington last week launched a wave of strikes against Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria following the deaths of three US soldiers in neighboring Jordan.

The Israeli military confirmed that it had attacked a commander of the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, whom it believed responsible for the recent rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon.

In other diplomatic attempts to end the war, King Abdullah II of Jordan toured the United States, Canada, France and Germany, the royal court said.

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