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Strikes on Gaza's Rafah as US warns of potential 'disaster'

Strikes on Gaza's Rafah as US warns of potential 'disaster'
February 9, 2024 Web Desk

GAZA, Palestine (AFP) - Israel conducted fresh strikes on southern Gaza's overcrowded border town of Rafah on Friday, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter, with key backer the United States warning of a looming "disaster".

The Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip said that at least 27,947 people have been martyred in the besieged territory during the war between Palestinian militants and Israel. The latest toll includes 107 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, while a total of 67,459 people have been wounded in Gaza since the war broke out on October 7.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in Rafah, the last major town in the Gaza Strip Israeli ground troops have yet to enter. A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the United States did not support an Israeli operation in Rafah, with President Joe Biden later telling reporters he considered Israel's conduct of its war against Hamas to be "over the top".

The Israeli military stepped up its air strikes on Rafah Thursday, with witnesses reporting more overnight. The territory's Hamas-run health ministry said early Friday that more than 100 people were killed during the night, including at least eight in Rafah. The Palestinian Red Crescent meanwhile said three children had died in a strike on Rafah.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said news of the coming push into the city was "alarming", and warned it "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare". State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington had "yet to see any evidence of serious planning" for a Rafah ground operation. Noting Rafah was also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid, he added such an assault was "not something we'd support".

"To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought... would be a disaster," he said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed Washington's concerns to Netanyahu directly during talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem, Patel said. Asked about the war in Gaza at an unrelated press conference Thursday evening, Biden told reporters he was "of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top".

Little progress on truce

The war was triggered by Hamas's unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Months of bombardment and siege have given rise to a deepening humanitarian crisis, especially in southern Gaza. UN rights chief Volker Turk, meanwhile, charged that Israel was committing a "war crime" with its reported destruction of buildings to create a "buffer zone" along the border inside Gaza. Israel's "extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime", he said in a statement.

Despite a recent blitz of diplomatic efforts aimed at brokering a truce, Blinken wrapped up his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war started without securing a pause in fighting. On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw "space for agreement to be reached" to halt the fighting and bring home Israeli hostages, even after Netanyahu rejected what he labelled Hamas's "bizarre demands".

Egypt was set to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators in hopes of achieving "calm" in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said. A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP they expected negotiations to be "difficult", but said Hamas was "keen to reach a ceasefire".

In Riyadh, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan reiterated calls for a "immediate and complete ceasefire", as well as "irreversible" steps towards the recognition of a Palestinian state during talks on the war in Gaza, Saudi state media reported on Friday. Two diplomats briefed on preparations for Thursday's meeting told AFP it was intended to promote a unified Arab position on the war.