US president Joe Biden has told Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that a military operation in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza should not proceed without a plan to ensure the safety of more than one million people sheltering there.
A 45-minute conversation between the leaders took place on Sunday night amid mounting international criticism of Israel’s plan to attack Hamas in Rafah, adjacent to the Egyptian border. Some 1.3 million displaced people are living in temporary shelters in the city after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza.
According to a White House readout, Mr Biden “reaffirmed our shared goal to see Hamas defeated and to ensure the long-term security of Israel and its people” and “discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages held by Hamas”.
Hamas, which governs parts of the Gaza Strip, predicted there could be “tens of thousands” of casualties and warned any operation in Rafah would also undermine continual talks about the possible release of Israeli hostages held in the enclave.
The Wall Street Journal reported, Egypt has warned Hamas that it has two weeks to reach a new ceasefire and hostage release deal before Israel attacks Rafah. There are concerns in Cairo that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will flee across border into the Egyptian Sinai.
Egypt has warned that such a scenario would threaten its four-decade-old peace treaty with Israel and it has sent military reinforcements to the area and erected a new barbed wire fence along the border. While Egypt may not be able to stop an Israeli offensive in Rafah, they insist it should only take place after civilians are given time to evacuate.
European Union foreign chief Josep Borrell warned that an Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an “unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe” and would also cause grave tensions with Egypt.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said Mr Netanyahu’s announcement about Rafah poses “a grave threat” to Palestinians sheltering in the area and that it “must be condemned”.
“It is absolutely clear that a military operation in Rafah, which has effectively now become one of the largest and most overcrowded refugee camps in the world, would entail grave violations of international humanitarian law,” he said.
Ordering the evacuation of around 1.5 million people “who have nowhere safe to go risks mass forced displacement” and “this cannot be allowed to happen”, Mr Martin added.
The Tánaiste also said countries that have frozen or withdrawn funding to UNRWA – the United Nations aid agency that supports Palestinian refugees – “must urgently rescind this decision and resume funding”. Several countries including the US and UK suspended financing for it after Israel last month accused a dozen of UNRWA employees of involvement in Hamas’s October 7th attack.
In an interview with US broadcaster ABC News aired on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu insisted “victory is in reach” and the Israeli military was “going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah” while promising to “provide safe passage” for civilians.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, ‘Lose the war. Keep Hamas there,’” he added.
Israeli and Egyptian officials have held a number of meetings over the last few weeks and Israel has promised that it will act in co-ordination with the Egyptian military.
“Israel’s relations with Egypt are strategic, long-term and important for the continued prosecution of the war and a hostage deal,” said an Israeli official. “Relations between us are excellent and the operation will be carried out with co-ordination.”
Israeli planners had originally hoped to conclude a military operation in Rafah before the start of the one-month Muslim Ramadan holiday, which begins around March 10th. This now looks increasingly unlikely as it may take a few weeks before a million or so civilians can move out of Rafah.
As the fighting in Gaza continues, mainly in the southern city of Khan Younis, Hamas announced on Sunday that two Israeli hostages were killed and another eight seriously wounded in Israeli strikes over the last few days.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in Gaza according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel says 1,200 people were killed in the surprise Hamas attack on October 7th and more than 250 kidnapped.
The economic impact of the war on the Israeli economy continues to bite. Over the weekend, the Moody’s credit agency lowered Israel’s credit rating from A1 to A2 and also added a negative outlook – meaning that the rating could be lowered even further. It is the first time Israel’s credit rating has ever been lowered.