Home International Israel begins evacuating part of Rafah, Hamas decries ‘dangerous escalation’

Israel begins evacuating part of Rafah, Hamas decries ‘dangerous escalation’

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Israel told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah on Monday in what appeared to be preparation for a long-threatened assault on Hamas holdouts in the southern Gaza city where more than a million people uprooted by the war have been sheltering.

People flee the eastern parts of Rafah after the Israeli military began evacuating Palestinian civilians ahead of a threatened assault on the southern Gazan city, May 6, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Hatem Khaled

By Mohammed Salem and Nidal Al-Mughrabi

RAFAH – Israel told Palestinians to evacuate parts of Rafah on Monday in what appeared to be preparation for a long-threatened assault on Hamas holdouts in the southern Gaza city where more than a million people uprooted by the war have been sheltering.

Instructed by Arabic text messages, telephone calls, and flyers to move to what the Israeli military called an “expanded humanitarian zone” 20km (7 miles) away, some Palestinian families lumbered out under chilly spring rain.

Soon after midday in Gaza, several explosions were heard in east Rafah, residents and Hamas media said, with an air strike targeting some houses where lines of smoke and dust sprung up.

A senior official of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza, said the evacuation order was a “dangerous escalation” that would have consequences.

“The US administration, alongside the occupation, bears responsibility for this terrorism,” the official, Sami Abu Zuhri, told Reuters, referring to Israel’s alliance with Washington.

Israel’s military said it had begun encouraging residents of Rafah to evacuate in a “limited scope” operation. It gave no specific reasons nor did it say if offensive action might follow.

Some Palestinians piled children and possessions onto donkey carts to begin relocation, while others left by pick-up or on foot through streets turned to mud and puddles by rains.

“It has been raining heavily and we don’t know where to go. I have been worried that this day may come, I have now to see where I can take my family,” one refugee, Abu Raed, told Reuters via a chat app.

Witnesses said the areas in and around Rafah to which Israel wants to move people are already crowded and there is almost no room for more tents to be added.

“The biggest genocide, the biggest catastrophe will take place in Rafah. I call on the whole Arab world to interfere for a ceasefire – let them interfere and save us from what we are in,” said Aminah Adwan, a displaced Palestinian.

Seven months into its war against Hamas, Israel has been threatening to launch incursions in Rafah, which it says harbours thousands of Hamas fighters and potentially dozens of hostages. Victory is impossible without taking Rafah, it says.

The prospect of a high-casualty operation worries Western powers and neighbouring Egypt, which is trying to mediate a new round of truce talks between Israel and Hamas under which the Palestinian Islamist group might free some hostages.

Egyptian negotiators are intensifying talks to contain the current escalation between Israel and Hamas, an unnamed “high-level” source was quoted by Egypt’s state-affiliated Al Qahera news TV as saying on Monday.

The source said the ceasefire talks had hit an impasse after Hamas attacked the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza on Sunday, killing four Israeli soldiers.

PUBLIC RIFT

The Rafah plan has opened an unusually public rift between Israel and Washington. Speaking to his US counterpart, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant linked Monday’s operation to the deadlock in indirect diplomacy, which he blamed on Hamas.

“During their discussion, Gallant discussed the efforts undertaken to achieve the release of hostages and indicated that at this stage, Hamas refuses the frameworks at hand,” the Israeli Defence Ministry said in a statement.

“Gallant emphasised that military action is required, including in the area of Rafah, at the lack of an alternative.”

An Israeli broadcaster, Army Radio, said evacuations were focused on a few peripheral districts of Rafah, from which people would be directed to tent cities in nearby Khan Younis and Al Muwassi.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said an Israeli offensive in Rafah would be devastating for 1.4 million people sheltering there, adding that it would keep a presence in the city as long as possible to provide aid.

In an overnight aerial attack on Rafah, Israeli planes hit 10 houses, killing 20 people and wounding several, medical officials said.

“Our just war in Gaza continues with the exact same goals: the release of all hostages and the defeat of Hamas,” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Monday on X.

The war began after Hamas stunned Israel with a cross-border raid on October 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 252 hostages taken, according to Israeli tallies.

More than 34,600 Palestinians have been killed, 29 of them in the past 24 hours, and more than 77,000 have been wounded in Israel’s assault, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

On Sunday, a top UN official accused Israel of continuing to deny the United Nations humanitarian access in Gaza, where the UN food chief warned a “full-blown famine” has taken hold in the north of the enclave of 2.3 million people.

While not a formal declaration, World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain said, in an NBC News interview broadcast on Sunday, that based on the “horror” on the ground: “There is famine, full-blown famine, in the north, and it’s moving its way south.”

– REUTERS

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