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Palestinians brace for Rafah assault, Israel promises evacuation

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Israeli air strikes killed 17 people in Rafah on the Gaza border overnight, medics said on Saturday, as over a million Palestinians crammed into the city awaited a full-scale offensive with the rest of the enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.

Four months into the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.

The Israeli military said the air force killed two Hamas operatives in Rafah on Saturday.

Israel’s military ordered civilians to flee south before previous assaults on Gaza’s cities, but now there is no obvious place to go and aid agencies have said many people could die.

“Any Israeli incursion in Rafah means massacres, means destruction. People are filling every inch of the city and we have nowhere to go,” said Rezik Salah, 35, who fled from Gaza City for Rafah with his wife and two children early in the conflict.

A possible assault on Rafah prompted international concern, including posts on social media from British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot.

“Deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah – over half of Gaza’s population are sheltering in the area. The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire,” Cameron said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Hard to see how large-scale military operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. This is unjustifiable,” Bruins Slot said.

Air strikes

The conflict in Gaza began on October 7 when Hamas gunmen stormed border defenses to attack Israeli towns, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostages back to Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel responded with a massive bombardment and ground offensive in which about 28,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed, according to medical authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.

Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes, artillery fire and controlled detonations. More than 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been left homeless.

Most of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, but after fruitless ceasefire talks, Netanyahu this week said Israeli forces would fight on until “total victory.”

On Friday night an air strike on a Rafah house killed 11 people and wounded dozens and a second strike killed six people in another house, medical officials said. Earlier on Saturday two separate Israeli air strikes killed five members of the Hamas-run police force in Rafah, including a senior officer, Hamas and medics said.

In the other main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where many displaced people initially fled before an Israeli offensive last month, the Palestinian Health Ministry voiced alarm at Israeli operations around the main Nasser Hospital.

The ministry said Israeli forces had surrounded the hospital and were shooting in the vicinity, raising concerns about 300 medical staff, 450 patients and 10,000 people sheltering there.

Footage circulating on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed tanks at the hospital gates.

Israel’s military said its forces were continuing intensive activities in Khan Younis as well as northern and central Gaza, killing militants, seizing weapons and striking infrastructure.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the situation at Nasser hospital.

Fierce fighting

In Gaza City, the first major population center targeted after Israeli ground forces invaded in October, residents reported fierce fighting on Saturday.

Israel said its forces had discovered a tunnel network hundreds of meters long running partly under the Gaza City headquarters of UNRWA, the main relief agency for Palestinians.

The military said it was evidence of how Hamas had exploited UNRWA, which has launched an internal probe and seen some donor countries freeze funding over Israel’s allegations that 12 of its roughly 13,000 employees in the Gaza Strip had participated in the October 7 attacks.

UNRWA said its staff left its headquarters in Gaza City on October 12 following Israeli evacuation orders.

“We have not used that compound since we left it nor are we aware of any activity that may have taken place there,” It said.

An Israeli official who declined to be named said Israel would try to organize for people in Rafah to be moved back north ahead of any assault.

Egypt has said it will not allow any mass displacement of Palestinians into its territory. Palestinians fear Israel means to drive them from their homeland, then forbid their return.

The continued warfare in Gaza City, long after Israel said it was redeploying some troops to other areas, shows the limitations of any evacuation proposal.

Palestinian rescue workers in Gaza City said they had found the bodies of a six-year-old girl and her family members, along with the ambulance team sent to rescue them, days after an audio clip of her call to dispatchers begging for help was released.

Source(s): CGTN

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Iraqi Shiite militia says calm with U.S. forces ‘temporary tactic’

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The leader of an Iraqi Shiite militia said Sunday that the current period of calm among Iraqi armed groups in their conflict with the U.S. forces is a “temporary tactic” and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has not abandoned its support for the Palestinians.

Akram al-Kaabi, secretary general of the Iranian-backed al-Nujaba Movement, said in a statement that the current calm is only a tactic for repositioning and deployment. “It is only the calm before the storm.”

He said that the Islamic Resistance in Iraq “is an essential part in the battle to confront the Zionist aggression (the Israeli military campaign) and its supporter America against the Gaza Strip.”

Al-Kaabi also said that there is high-level coordination between different “open fronts” against the Americans and Israelis in the region, stressing that “any calm on one front and ignition on another is an intentional, purposeful and coordinated strategy.”

“Although the Islamic resistance did not reject the government’s negotiations to schedule the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, we affirm that the U.S. occupier is a liar, a deceiver and an arrogant one,” the statement said.

Days after fighting broke out between the Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip on October 7, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq launched rocket, drone and mortar attacks on military bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

On January 27, Iraq and the U.S. began the first round of dialogue to discuss ending the U.S.-led international coalition’s mission in Iraq, but later three U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack on a U.S. base near Jordan’s border with Syria. The U.S. said the attack was carried out by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella term for pro-Iran Shiite Islamic armed groups in Iraq.

The death of the U.S. soldiers prompted the U.S. forces to retaliate by striking some headquarters of Iranian-backed armed groups affiliated with the Iraqi paramilitary Hashd Shaabi forces, killing and wounding dozens of them.

Later, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq suspended their attacks on U.S. bases to pave the way for the Iraqi government to hold negotiations with the U.S.-led coalition to end their presence in Iraq.

Source(s): CGTN

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U.S., UK launch new wave of strikes against Yemen’s Houthis

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The U.S. and the UK carried out a fresh wave of strikes on Saturday against 18 Houthi targets in Yemen, according to a joint statement, following weeks of attacks on Red Sea shipping by the Iran-backed group.

The strikes “specifically targeted 18 Houthi targets across eight locations in Yemen associated with Houthi underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one-way attack unmanned aerial systems, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter,” said the joint statement.

It was co-signed by Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, who gave unspecified “support” to the new round of strikes, the second this month and fourth since the Houthis began their attacks on ships in the region.

“The Houthis’ now more than 45 attacks on commercial and naval vessels since mid-November constitute a threat to the global economy, as well as regional security and stability and demand an international response,” the statement said.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah television reported “a series of raids on the capital Sanaa,” while AFP correspondents in the Houthi-controlled city in western Yemen said they heard several loud bangs.

“The United States will not hesitate to take action, as needed, to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said in a separate statement after the strikes.

“We will continue to make clear to the Houthis that they will bear the consequences if they do not stop their illegal attacks, which harm Middle Eastern economies, cause environmental damage, and disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen and other countries.”

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree was defiant, vowing in a social media statement that the group would “confront the American-British escalation with more qualitative military operations against all hostile targets in the Red and Arab Seas.”

The UK Ministry of Defense said four Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4s targeted “several very long-range drones, used by the Houthis for both reconnaissance and attack missions,” on Saturday at a site north-east of Sanaa.

Saturday’s operation comes after several merchant vessels were struck this week in the region, including the fertilizer-filled Rubymar, whose crew had to abandon ship after it was hit Sunday and began taking on water.

Apart from the joint operations with Britain, the United States has also carried out unilateral strikes against Houthi positions and weaponry in Yemen and downed dozens of missiles and drones in the Red Sea.

Source(s): CGTN

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Gaza ceasefire talks underway in Paris as air strikes continue

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Gaza truce talks were underway in Paris on Friday, marking the most serious push in weeks to halt the fighting in the battered Palestinian enclave and see Israeli and foreign hostages released.

Reuters reported that the talks had begun, with Israel’s head of the Mossad intelligence service meeting separately with each party – Qatar, Egypt and the United States, according to an anonymous source.

“There are budding signs of optimism about moving forward toward the start of serious negotiations,” the source was quoted as saying. Egypt’s Al Qahera TV News also reported that the talks had commenced.

An official from Hamas stated that the militant group had concluded ceasefire talks in Cairo and was now awaiting the outcome of the weekend talks with Israel mediated by others.

Mediators have intensified efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, aiming to prevent an Israeli assault on the Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million displaced people are sheltering at the southern edge of the enclave.

Israel has threatened to attack the city if no truce agreement is reached soon. Washington has urged its close ally not to proceed, warning of vast civilian casualties if an assault on the city occurs.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met with Egyptian mediators in Cairo this past week to discuss a truce, marking his first visit since December.

Two Egyptian security sources confirmed that Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel would head to Paris for talks with the Israelis after wrapping up discussions with Haniyeh on Thursday. Israel has not publicly commented on the Paris talks, which are expected to continue through the weekend.

Reuters reported that the militant group did not offer any new proposals at the talks with the Egyptians but was waiting to see what the mediators would bring back from their discussions with the Israelis, citing a Hamas official who requested anonymity.

Ceasefire outline emerged from earlier talks

The last time similar talks were held in Paris, at the start of February, they produced an outline for the first extended ceasefire of the conflict, approved by Israel and the United States. Hamas responded with a counterproposal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then rejected as “delusional.”

Hamas, believed to still be holding more than 100 hostages seized in the October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the conflict, insists on their release only as part of a truce that includes an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israel, on the other hand, refuses to withdraw until Hamas is eradicated.

Late on Thursday, Netanyahu presented his security cabinet with an official plan for Gaza once the fighting stops. He emphasized that Israel expects to maintain security control over the enclave after destroying Hamas and also sees no role there for the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank.

Washington favors a role for a reformed PA.

Two Palestinian officials familiar with the negotiations stated that Hamas has not changed its stance in the latest push to reach a deal and still demands that a truce end with an Israeli pullout.

“Israel’s position and its response to mediation has been negative and this poses many obstacles towards reaching an agreement,” senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said on Friday during a press conference in Beirut.

“Netanyahu is procrastinating… He does not care about the release of his hostages, but rather uses this issue as a card to achieve his goals,” Hamdan said.

At least 29,514 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza since October 7, the Gaza health ministry said on Friday.

Source(s): CGTN

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