Publish: 13 Feb 2024, 11:24 am
Joe Biden has added his voice to growing international calls for Israel to drop plans for an all-out military assault on the city of Rafah, in southern Gaza, after a ferocious hostage rescue operation that killed dozens of Palestinians.
Speaking after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House on Monday, the US president said: “A major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than 1 million people sheltering there.
“Many people there have been displaced multiple times fleeing the violence to the north and now they are packed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They need to be protected,” he said.
Biden said that the US had been working “day and night” on efforts to agree a six-week pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas as a stepping stone to a longer ceasefire. He said that “key elements of the deal are on the table” although gaps remained.
King Abdullah echoed Biden’s appeal for a broad ceasefire. “We cannot stand by and let this continue,” he said. “We need a lasting ceasefire now. This war must end.” Earlier, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, congratulated the soldiers who mounted the dramatic rescue of two Israeli hostages in the city, where more than 1 million Palestinians have fled seeking shelter, describing it as a “perfect operation”. The Israeli military launched airstrikes on nearby buildings to support the rescue, killing at least 67 Palestinians. Hamas later claimed that other Israeli hostages were also killed in the bombardment.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, furiously rounded on the Israeli leader amid growing international alarm at the rising death toll in Gaza – which reached 28,340 on Monday – saying that Netanyahu “doesn’t listen to anyone”. Responding to Netanyahu’s statement that refugees in Rafah would be evacuated from the area before a major military offensive, Borrell said: “Where? To the moon? Where are they going to evacuate these people to?”
Borrell’s sentiments were echoed in more diplomatic language by David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, who said: “It really, we think, is impossible to see how you can fight a war among these people, there is nowhere for them to go. “They can’t go south into Egypt, they can’t go north and back to their homes because many have been destroyed. So we are very concerned about the situation and we want Israel to stop and think seriously before it takes any further action.”
A spokesperson for Rishi Sunak said that the prime minister was “deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah”. Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, also suggested that a failure to ensure special care for civilians in Rafah would “cause serious harm to Israel’s own interests”. Last week, her German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, warned that an Israeli offensive on Rafah would be a “humanitarian catastrophe in the making”. “The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air,” she added.
Volker Türk, the UN’s human rights chief, said: “The world must not allow this to happen. Those with influence must restrain rather than enable.” Hundreds of thousands of families from other parts of Gaza who are now living in makeshift tents in Rafah, which sits on the border with Egypt, have moved up to half a dozen times in the past four months in desperate attempts to flee bombardment and ground fighting.
Despite mounting warnings from aid agencies and the international community that an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic, Netanyahu has reiterated his intention to extend Israel’s offensive. Hamas said a new advance into Rafah would “blow up” continuing negotiations to return hostages in exchange for a ceasefire. In the early hours of Monday, the Israeli military launched airstrikes on Rafah as its forces mounted a raid to rescue the two hostages. Residents said two mosques and several houses were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks and ships, causing widespread panic among people who had been asleep. Women and children were among those killed, according to Dr Marwan al-Hams, the director of the Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital, and dozens were wounded.
The freed hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who had been abducted from the Nir Yitzhak kibbutz on 7 October, were taken to a hospital in central Israel and were confirmed by doctors to be in “good condition”, a statement from the hospital said. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesperson, said the IDF had conducted a “wave of attacks” on Rafah during the 90-minute operation. Israeli special forces shielded the hostages with their bodies as a heavy battle erupted, he said. The airstrikes were launched “to allow the force to cut off contact and hit the Hamas terrorists in the area” and take the hostages out safely.
Later on Monday Hamas claimed that a number of hostages were among the dead and injured from the heavy Israeli airstrikes that accompanied the rescue mission. The group’s armed wing claimed in a statement that three of eight Israeli hostages who were seriously injured after the airstrikes had subsequently died from their wounds.
The claims were impossible to verify and information from Hamas on the subject of the hostages has in the past been unreliable. The White House has said that before the rescue took place, Joe Biden told Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not launch a military operation in Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of people sheltering there.
In an indication of frustration within the international community, Borrell took a swipe at the US for continuing to arm Israel while raising concerns about civilian deaths. “How many times have you heard the most prominent leaders of the world saying too many people are being killed. President Biden has said this [killing] is too much, said it is not proportional,” Borrell told reporters in Brussels. “Well, if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed. That is logical.”
On Monday, a court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to halt the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, ruling that there was a “clear risk” that the planes could be used to violate international humanitarian law.
Several human rights organisations had launched a legal challenge in December, calling for the continued transfer of aircraft parts to be re-evaluated in the context of Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
The appeals court said: “It is undeniable that there is a clear risk that the exported F-35 parts are used in serious violations of international humanitarian law … Israel does not take sufficient account of the consequences for the civilian population when conducting its attacks.” It added that the military offensive in Gaza had “caused a disproportionate number of civilian casualties, including thousands of children”.
The Dutch government said it would file an appeal with the country’s supreme court amid concerns that the order had encroached on the state’s responsibility to formulate foreign policy. The UK government announced new sanctions on four “extremist” Israeli settlers who have committed human rights abuses against Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Cameron, said: “Today’s sanctions place restrictions on those involved in some of the most egregious abuses of human rights. We should be clear about what is happening here. Extremist Israeli settlers are threatening Palestinians, often at gunpoint, and forcing them off land that is rightfully theirs. This behaviour is illegal and unacceptable.
“Israel must also take stronger action and put a stop to settler violence. Too often, we see commitments made and undertakings given, but not followed through.”
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