Israel is facing mounting regional and international pressure over its planned ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza.
Over the past few days, regional countries have warned Israel against a humanitarian meltdown in Rafah if Israeli forces insist on carrying out the ground assault in the city, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are now living, including 1.3 million people who fled from other parts of the coastal enclave.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday he has directed the military to prepare to evacuate civilians from the overcrowded city ahead of an expanded offensive against Hamas.
Netanyahu’s remarks sparked great alarm among regional countries that the plan would further worsen the humanitarian situation already deteriorated since the Israel-Hamas conflict started on October 7 in the besieged enclave.
Qatar, which was engaging in diplomatic efforts along with the United States and Egypt to push for a ceasefire in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, “condemns in the strongest terms the Israeli threats to storm the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.”
It “warns of a humanitarian catastrophe in the city that has become a last refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced people,” said its Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement on Saturday.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both having signed peace treaties with Israel in 2020, also expressed deep concern.
Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions” of storming and targeting Rafah, “the last resort” for hundreds of thousands of civilians who had fled from intensive Israeli strikes on cities northward.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry affirmed the country’s rejection of forced displacement of Palestinians, warning against what he called Israel’s “systematic policy” to force Palestinians out of their land.
Jordan voiced its categorical rejection of the displacement of Palestinians inside or outside their land, stressing the need to end the conflict and protect civilians.
Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul-Gheit warned that Israel’s intentions to impose the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are “serious threats to regional stability.”
On Sunday, in an apparent move to ease external concerns, Netanyahu said in a televised interview with ABC News that a “detailed plan” was being worked out on “providing safe passage for the civilian population, so they can leave” the Rafah city.
But Hamas warned against any Israeli ground operation in the southernmost Gazan city of Rafah, saying that it would “blow up” the hostage exchange negotiations, the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV quoted an unnamed senior Hamas leader as saying.
On the same day, U.S. President Joe Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed unless a plan for “ensuring the safety” of the population was laid out first.
Biden reaffirmed the “shared goal to see Hamas defeated.” He also called for urgent steps to increase the humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.
Despite not yet launching a ground offensive into Rafah, Israel has pounded the city with airstrikes that are part of its massive bombardment on Gaza. On Monday, the Israeli military said it conducted “a series of strikes” on southern Gaza that have now “concluded.”
The death toll of Palestinians from Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip has risen to 28,176 since October 7, 2023, with 67,784 others being injured, the health ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
Iraqi Shiite militia says calm with U.S. forces ‘temporary tactic’
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.
U.S., UK launch new wave of strikes against Yemen’s Houthis
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.
Gaza ceasefire talks underway in Paris as air strikes continue
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.
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