Biden urged Israel’s Netanyahu to protect civilians in Rafah, White House says

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: Hamas warned Israel on Sunday that a ground offensive in Rafah, crowded with displaced Gazans, would imperil future hostage releases, while US President Joe Biden urged the protection of civilians in the besieged territory.
Foreign governments, including Israel’s key ally the United States, and aid groups have voiced deep concern over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to extend operations into the far-southern Gaza city.
Rafah, on the border with Egypt, has remained 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 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 AFP on condition of anonymity.
Netanyahu has told troops to prepare to enter the city which now hosts more than half of Gaza’s total population, spurring concern about the impact on displaced civilians.
Biden spoke to Netanyahu on the phone Sunday and told him the Gaza advance should not go ahead in the absence of a “credible” plan to ensure “the safety” of people sheltering there, the White House said.
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 ABC News the Rafah operation would go ahead until Hamas is eliminated, adding he 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 some 250 hostages on October 7, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures. 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, a claim AFP is unable to independently verify.
Netanyahu has faced calls for early elections and mounting protests over his administration’s failure to bring home the hostages.
Israeli strikes have long hit targets in Rafah, and combat on Sunday seemed intense several kilometers (miles) to the north in Khan Yunis city. AFP correspondents heard repeated explosions and saw plumes of black smoke.
Israel’s military said troops were conducting “targeted raids” in the west of Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, while Hamas reported violent clashes and said air strikes also hit Rafah.
Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel has responded with a relentless offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that the territory’s health ministry says has killed at least 28,176 people, mostly women and children.
Hamas said dozens of bodies had been found in Gaza City, in the coastal strip’s north, after Israeli ground troops withdrew from the area.
Most of them “were martyred by bullets of snipers,” the group said in a statement.
Hossam Al-Sharqawi of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told reporters that “every day our ambulance guys (in Gaza) are martyred or injured.”
“This is unacceptable, this madness must stop.”
During a visit to a military base Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel aims for “the demilitarization of Gaza.”
“This requires our security control… over the entire area west of Jordan, including the Gaza Strip,” he said.
The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were some of the latest to raise the alarm over the plan for Rafah, Gaza’s last major population center that Israeli troops have yet to enter.
“The OIC strongly warned that the continuation and expansion of the Israeli military aggression is part of rejected attempts to forcibly expel the Palestinian people from their land,” the 57-nation Jeddah-based bloc said on social media.
It stressed “that such acts fall under genocide and would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and collective massacre.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also rejected “forced” displacement of people from Rafah, evoking the trauma of Palestinians’ mass exodus and forced displacement around the time of Israel’s creation in 1948.
Riyadh called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting, while Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the priority “must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out.”
Denouncing a “genocide” in Gaza, thousands rallied Sunday in Morocco’s capital Rabat and called on their government to undo a 2020 normalization pact with Israel.
Gazans, driven further and further south, have repeatedly said they can find no safe refuge from the fighting and bombing.
Farah Muhammad, 39, a mother of five displaced to Rafah from northern Gaza, said she felt helpless.
“There is no place to escape.”

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