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Israel needs a plan to protect civilians in Rafah

Written by: NAJIB JOBAIN and SMY MAGDY

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Sunday that Israel is using military forces against Hamas in Gaza’s densely populated border town of Rafah without a “credible and workable” plan to protect civilians. He said that he should not organize an operation. aforementioned.

This was the president’s harshest language yet regarding a possible operation. Describing Israel’s military intervention in Gaza as “high-level” last week, Biden also called for “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 television reported that the meeting lasted 45 minutes.

A senior US administration official said discussion of the potential ceasefire agreement was a big part of the call and that after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” for signing the agreement was now “pretty much” in place. The number of hostages remaining in the hands of Hamas in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged “gaps remain” but declined to provide details. A military crackdown on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks has helped the group move closer to accepting the deal, the official said.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television channel had previously quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu came after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt had threatened to suspend a peace deal with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah, where it feared fighting could push Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and force Gaza to close its main aid supply route. spoke. .

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly half a century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops to Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He claimed that Hamas had four battalions there.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas and are housed in tent camps and UN-run shelters. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that there were “lots of places north of Rafah they can go” after Israel attacked other parts of Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, cell phones, safe corridors and other things.” However, the attack caused widespread destruction as it had little capacity to receive people.

The standoff between two close US allies, Israel and Egypt, took shape as aid groups warned that an attack on Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. Nearly 80 percent of residents have fled their homes, and the UN says a quarter of the population faces hunger.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only ways to distribute food and medical supplies. Palestinian Transitional Authority spokesman Wael Abu Omar said 44 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday. Before the war, about 500 people entered every day.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists on sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of serious consequences if Israel enters Rafah.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote about X: “Israeli attack on Rafah will lead to an unspeakable humanitarian disaster and serious tensions with Egypt.” Human Rights Watch said forced displacement was a war crime.

The White House, which has shipped weapons to Israel and defended Israel against international calls for a ceasefire, warned that the Rafah ground operation would be a “catastrophe” for civilians.

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the US-brokered Camp David Accords in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the heavily fortified border.

Egyptian authorities fear that if the border is crossed, the army will not be able to stop the flow of people fleeing to the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, is now home to a further 1.4 million people and is “severely overcrowded.”

Some displaced persons in Rafah regrouped. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled northern Beit Lahia early in the war, loaded their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can take him safely,” Fedaa said about their baby. “We have to move every month.”

Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, who was displaced from Nuseyrat, said he hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee to Sinai “because we don’t want to leave.”

By now Israel had ordered most of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the area.

Violent clashes continue in the center of Gaza and Khan Younis. In Gaza City, the remaining residents covered up rotting corpses in the streets or carried the bodies to graves.

The Gaza Ministry of Health said in a statement on Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed in the region in the last 24 hours were brought to hospitals. The death toll since the beginning of the war has reached 28,176. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says most of those killed were women and children.

The war began when Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7; fighters killed approximately 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped around 250. During a week-long ceasefire in November, more than 100 hostages were released in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some of the remaining hostages died.

Hamas said it would not lay down any more weapons unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. He also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top fighters serving life sentences.

Netanyahu rejected both demands, saying Israel would fight until “complete victory” and the return of all hostages.

Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.

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