Israel-Gaza conflict heats up as Palestinians ordered to leave Rafah as ground assault looms

Staff writers
Reuters
An Israeli soldier directs a tank near the border with the southern Gaza Strip.
An Israeli soldier directs a tank near the border with the southern Gaza Strip. Credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images

The Israeli army has told Palestinians to begin evacuating eastern Rafah, according to an Israeli Defence Force statement, signalling that a ground invasion is imminent.

People were told to move to Muwasi, an Israeli-declared humanitarian area near the coast. The army said it had expanded assistance into the area, including field hospitals, tents, food and water.

In what appeared to be the beginning of a civilian evacuation ahead of a ground assault, however, the Israeli military called on Palestinians in eastern parts of Rafah to move to a nearby “humanitarian area”.

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In a statement, the military said posters, text messages, phone calls and media announcements would be used to “encourage ... the gradual movement of civilians in the specified areas”.

Seven months into its offensive against Hamas, Israel has said Rafah harbours thousands of the Palestinian Islamist group’s fighters and that victory is impossible without taking the city.

But with more than a million displaced Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, the prospect of a high-casualty operation worries Western powers and neighbouring Egypt.

Earlier, the latest round of Gaza ceasefire talks ended in Cairo, after Hamas reiterated key demands that Israel again rejected.

After earlier signs of progress, the outlook appeared to dim as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to resist international pressure to halt the war.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant claimed Hamas wasn’t serious about a deal and warned of “a powerful operation in the very near future in Rafah and other places across all of Gaza” after Hamas attacked Israel’s main crossing point for delivering badly needed humanitarian aid, killing three soldiers.

Israel’s military said it believed Hamas was targeting soldiers massed on the Gaza border in preparation for a possible Rafah invasion. Hamas said it targeted soldiers in the area.

But Israeli media reported that CIA chief William Burns, a main mediator in the talks, would meet with Netanyahu on Monday.

Israel didn’t send a delegation to the latest talks. Egyptian state media reported that the Hamas delegation went for discussions in Qatar, where the group has a political office, and will return to Cairo for further negotiations on Tuesday.

Another threat to talks came as Israel ordered the local offices of Qatar’s Al Jazeera satellite news network to close, accusing it of broadcasting anti-Israel incitement. The ban did not appear to affect the channel’s operations in Gaza or the West Bank.

Netanyahu, under pressure from hardliners in his government, continued to lower expectations for a ceasefire deal, calling the key Hamas demands “extreme”.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a statement earlier said the militant group was serious and positive about the negotiations and that stopping Israeli aggression in Gaza is the main priority.

But Israel’s government again vowed to press on with a military operation in Rafah, the southernmost Gaza city on the border with Egypt where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents now seek shelter from Israeli attacks. Rafah is a key entry point for aid.

Kerem Shalom, now closed, is another. The Israeli military reported 10 projectiles were launched at the crossing in southern Israel and said its fighter jets later struck the source. Israel’s Channel 12 said 10 soldiers remained hospitalised. It was unclear how long the crossing would be closed.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, called for an independent investigation and “accountability for the blatant disregard of humanitarian workers”. He also said Israel this week denied him entry to Gaza for a second time.

In a fiery speech for Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day, Netanyahu said: “I say to the leaders of the world, no amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum will stop Israel from defending itself.”

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