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Fears of Israeli Push to Rafah, Last Haven for Gaza Refugees


The European Union expressed deep concern Saturday over reports that the Israeli military intends to push on against Hamas all the way to Rafah.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned the conflict is likely to spread throughout the region unless a cease-fire is agreed upon by Israel and Hamas, after U.S. airstrikes hit dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Borrell said that about 1 million Palestinians “have been displaced progressively against the Egyptian border” and will have nowhere to go if Israel takes its ground war there. Borrell spoke of a “very dire situation” in Rafah.

The United Nations said the town is becoming a “pressure cooker of despair.”

Airstrikes kill at least 18

Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza cities of Rafah and Deir al-Balah killed at least 18 Palestinians, Hamas-run Gaza officials said Saturday, as fears increase that Israel would be expanding its ground offensive into the enclave’s last remaining areas where people have sought shelter.

Health officials in Gaza said an Israeli airstrike hit a house in Rafah, killing 14 people, including women and children.

There was no confirmation from the Israeli military that it carried out the strike.

Rafah, a town on Gaza’s southern border, is hosting more than half of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents. They found shelter there after fleeing Israel’s nearly 4-month-old offensive against Hamas, a designated terrorist organization according to the U.S., U.K, EU and others.

A man transports bags of flour distributed by a United Nations aid organization in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group, Feb. 3, 2024.

A man transports bags of flour distributed by a United Nations aid organization in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group, Feb. 3, 2024.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reported Saturday that at least 27,131 people have been killed and 66,287 have been wounded in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel.

Hamas starts to resurface

Meanwhile, Hamas has begun to resurface in areas where Israel withdrew the bulk of its forces a month ago, deploying police officers and making salary payments to some of its civil servants in Gaza City in recent days, four residents and a senior official in the militant group said Saturday.

Israel says it is determined to crush Hamas and prevent it from returning to power in the enclave it has governed since 2007.

In recent days, Israeli forces renewed strikes in the western and northwestern parts of Gaza City, including in areas where some salary distributions reportedly took place.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesperson, said Saturday that since the outbreak of the war in Gaza after October 7, Israeli forces have struck more than 50 targets in Syria linked to the Iranian-backed Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

“Everywhere Hezbollah is, we shall be. We will take action everywhere required in the Middle East,” Hagari said.

Israeli forces have attacked 34,000 Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, including 120 border surveillance outposts, 40 caches of missiles and other weaponry, and more than 40 command centers, Hagari said. He put the number of enemy dead at more than 200.

Hagari said Israel had deployed three army divisions along its side of the Lebanese border in anticipation of Hezbollah getting involved after Palestinian Hamas launched the October 7 cross-border terror attack.

Israel has threatened to escalate the Lebanon fighting unless Hezbollah backs off from the border, and it has sought Western help in finding a diplomatic solution in Beirut.

EU foreign policy chief Borrell said Saturday the Israel-Hamas war has created “a domino effect,” with conflict also erupting in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and in the Red Sea area.

Hamas leaders indicated Friday that they have received and will respond soon to a proposal for a cease-fire agreement negotiated by Egyptian, Qatari and U.S. mediators in Paris earlier this week and approved by Israel.

AFP reports the proposal includes a three-stage plan, which would start with an initial six-week halt to the fighting and bring more aid deliveries into Gaza.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed al-Thani made a brief visit to the United Nations on Friday to meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a day after meetings in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“This is part of the secretary-general’s ongoing consultations with the Qatari leadership,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters. “The prime minister was here. They, no surprise, discussed the efforts underway to end the fighting, to secure the release of the hostages, and to ensure support for humanitarian operations.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters Friday that the deal under negotiation is a “strong, compelling proposal,” and she urged the U.N. Security Council to increase pressure on Hamas to accept it.

The mediators are trying to negotiate a new cease-fire to halt the fighting to allow the release of more hostages and jailed Palestinians held by Israel. About 100 hostages held by Hamas and 240 Palestinians jailed by Israel were freed in a late November weeklong cease-fire.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.


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