Israel says it will go ahead with Rafah operation as 100,000 people flee region

Tensions between Israel and the US over the Rafah offensive increase after Biden threatens to withhold weapons

Israeli soldiers and military vehicles gather near the border fence with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Efforts to achieve a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal are deadlocked, with one Israeli official saying the gaps between the sides are “unbridgeable”.

The Israeli and Hamas delegations, along with CIA director William Burns, left the Egyptian capital Cairo on Thursday with no indication that any progress had been made and with no date set for more discussions.

An Israeli official said Israel would proceed with its operation in Rafah and other parts of Gaza as planned.

Fighting continued in the eastern neighbourhoods of Rafah at the southern tip of Gaza on the Egyptian border. Some 100,000 residents have fled Rafah since Israeli forces advanced on the city earlier this week. “The toll on these families is unbearable,” said the Unrwa refugee agency. “Nowhere is safe.”

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Residents reported air attacks and tank shelling across Rafah. Medics and residents said an Israeli attack by a mosque killed at least three people and wounded others in the eastern Brazil neighbourhood.

According to the Israeli military, some 50 militants have been killed in Rafah and more than a dozen tunnel shafts have been discovered and are being destroyed.

The Israeli military said three soldiers were wounded in an explosion in a booby-trapped tunnel.

Survivors of an Israeli attack on Rafah, Gaza, say they are gathering the remains of their deceased neighbours 'in body parts and pieces'. Video: Reuters

The offensive is still relatively limited in scope and Israeli leaders must decide whether to push into the centre of Rafah and the adjoining refugee camps, where more than 1 million residents are living in temporary accommodation after fleeing from the fighting during the seven-month war.

The Rafah border crossing with Egypt, seized by Israeli forces this week, remains closed, raising fears of a shortage of basic goods across the costal enclave.

Tensions between Israel and the US over the Rafah offensive increased on Thursday after US president Joe Biden for the first time publicly vowed to withhold weapons from Israel if it launches a major invasion.

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah... I’m not supplying the weapons,” Mr Biden said in a CNN interview, confirming that his administration has already held up an arms delivery. He also acknowledged that American bombs provided to Israel have killed Gaza civilians during the war.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said his country is willing to fight in Gaza alone if necessary. Video: Reuters

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was defiant. “If we need to stand alone we will stand alone,” he said. “I have said that if necessary we will fight with our fingernails.”

Israeli officials warned that Mr Biden’s comments were likely to make it more difficult to achieve a ceasefire and hostage release deal.

In response to the American decision, Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir posted “Hamas ♥ Biden” on X. Israeli president Yitzhak Herzog said “baseless, irresponsible, insulting statements” must be avoided, and opposition leader Yair Lapid called on Mr Netanyahu to dismiss Mr Ben-Gvir immediately.

“Smashing into Rafah will not advance the objective of defeating Hamas,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Thursday.

Mr Kirby said Mr Biden is “going to continue to provide Israel with the capabilities that it needs, all of them. But he does not want certain categories of American weapons used in [an offensive in Rafah].”

Hamas political bureau member Izzat al-Risheq said, “The purpose of entering Rafah and occupying the crossing is to thwart mediation efforts.”

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, almost 35,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 253 hostages seized in the surprise Hamas attack on October 7th.

More than 150 protesters blocked the passage of lorries carrying humanitarian aid from Jordan to Gaza on Thursday. The protesters, including relatives of hostages and parents of soldiers killed in the Gaza war, said Israel should halt such deliveries until Hamas agrees to Red Cross visits for the hostages.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem