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Hamas warns Israeli invasion of Rafah will ‘torpedo’ hostage talks

GAZA STRIP (AFP) – Hamas warned Israel on Sunday that a ground offensive in Rafah, crowded with displaced Gazans, would imperil future hostage releases, while United States President Joe Biden urged the protection of civilians in the besieged territory.

Foreign governments, including Israel’s key ally the United States, and aid groups have voiced deep concern over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to extend operations into the far-southern Gaza city.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, has remained the last refuge for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s relentless bombardment elsewhere in the Gaza Strip in its four-month war against Hamas, triggered by the group’s October 7 attack.

People stand around craters caused by Israeli bombardment in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip. PHOTO: AFP

“Any attack by the occupation army on the city of Rafah would torpedo the exchange negotiations,” a Hamas leader told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu has told troops to prepare to enter the city which now hosts more than half of Gaza’s total population, spurring concern about the impact on displaced civilians.

Biden spoke to Netanyahu on the phone on Sunday and told him the Gaza advance should not go ahead in the absence of a “credible” plan to ensure “the safety” of people sheltering there, the White House said.

About 1.4 million Palestinians have crowded into Rafah, with many living in tents while food, water and medicine are becoming increasingly scarce.

Israeli strikes have long hit targets in Rafah, and combat on Sunday seemed intense several kilometres to the north in Khan Yunis city. AFP correspondents heard repeated explosions and saw plumes of black smoke.

Israel’s military said troops were conducting “targeted raids” in the west of Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s main city, while Hamas reported violent clashes and said air strikes also hit Rafah.

Hossam al-Sharqawi of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told reporters that “every day our ambulance guys (in Gaza) are martyred or injured”.

A man inspects the damage in a house following Israeli bombardment in Rafah. PHOTO: AFP

“This is unacceptable, this madness must stop.” The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were some of the latest to raise the alarm over the plan for Rafah, Gaza’s last major population centre that Israeli troops have yet to enter.

“The OIC strongly warned that the continuation and expansion of the Israeli military aggression is part of rejected attempts to forcibly expel the Palestinian people from their land,” the 57-nation Jeddah-based bloc said on social media. It stressed “that such acts fall under genocide and would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and collective massacre”.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also rejected “forced” displacement of people from Rafah, evoking the trauma of Palestinians’ mass exodus and forced displacement around the time of Israel’s creation in 1948.