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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 11 March 2024

Biden warns Israel against Rafah invasion; Gaza maritime aid corridor set to open

Biden warns Israel against Rafah invasion; Gaza maritime aid corridor set to open
Police spray a water cannon and clash with anti-government protesters blocking a part of the Ayalon Highway on 9 March 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden warned Israel against an invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza as ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas remained deadlocked.

The European Union and partners including the US were set to launch a maritime aid corridor to Gaza at the weekend — a means to get urgent aid to desperate civilians caught in the Israel-Hamas war.

The US Central Command began sending supplies to Gaza to build a temporary dock to deliver large quantities of humanitarian aid by sea. Ships will carry food, water, medicine and other supplies to the coastal enclave.

Israel-Hamas deal elusive as Ramadan begins

US President Joe Biden warned Israel against an invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza as ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas remained deadlocked. 

The US had been hoping for a breakthrough in the negotiations before Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which began after sundown on Sunday. The deal as envisioned would see a six-week pause in fighting and the release of dozens of Israeli hostages in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. 

Negotiations remained at an impasse, however, with Israel accusing Hamas of stalling in a bid to inflame violence across the region during Islam’s holy month, and Hamas saying more Israeli hostages have died in captivity than earlier believed.  

Israel has threatened to invade Rafah, the last bastion of Hamas in Gaza and where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering, if the talks fail. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has said Israel won’t stop its campaign until the Iran-backed militant group is destroyed, with its main leaders killed, captured or exiled. 

In an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, Biden expressed hope that a ceasefire agreement may still be reached and warned that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would represent a “red line.”

Read more: Timing is everything for Israel-Hamas truce: Balance of Power

His comments came as US Central Command began sending supplies to Gaza to build a temporary dock to deliver large quantities of humanitarian aid by sea. Ships will carry food, water, medicine and other supplies to the coastal enclave. 

The US has been pushing for increased aid for Palestinians in Gaza, where a hunger crisis has developed during the five-month war, and sought to rein in Israel’s military activity. 

The war has been raging since Hamas operatives killed 1,200 people and abducted 250 during their 7 October massacre in southern Israel. 

More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October, according to officials in the Hamas-run territory. Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union. 

Read more: Biden orders military to build port to ease Gaza’s hunger crisis

The most recent temporary truce was reached in November, during which dozens of Israeli hostages were released from Gaza in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails.  

“We cannot have another 30,000 Palestinians dead,” Biden said, adding that Netanyahu “must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken.” 

“He is hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” Biden said in some of the harshest criticism he’s levelled against the Israeli leader. 

At the same time, Biden said he would never cut off weapon supplies to Israel and affirmed Israel’s right to fight Hamas.  

Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, which is handling the negotiations, said talks were ongoing to “narrow the gaps” between Israel and Hamas. 

“At this stage, Hamas is holding to its position as if it was uninterested in a deal and is striving to ignite the region during Ramadan at the expense of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip,” Mossad said in a statement.

Hamas is believed to be holding about 130 Israeli hostages taken in the 7 October raids. A Hamas official, in an interview with Bloomberg, claimed dozens have been killed by Israeli fire.

“At least 60 of the occupation’s prisoners have been killed at the hands of the occupation army during the continuous bombardment all over the Gaza Strip,” said Husam Badran. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.   

Gaza faces humanitarian catastrophe as aid corridor set to open – EU 

The European Union and partners including the US were set to launch a maritime aid corridor to Gaza as soon as this past weekend — a means to get urgent aid to desperate civilians caught in the Israel-Hamas war.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Cyprus to announce the initiative on Friday. The plan would see ships carry food and medical supplies from the Cypriot town of Larnaca across the Mediterranean Sea to Gaza, where the US plans to set up a temporary port to receive shipments.

The efforts — including security checks — will be coordinated with Israel, which controls all but one of Gaza’s land borders as well as its territorial waters and airspace, according to a statement. The EU and the US will also work with the UK and United Arab Emirates.

The move is seen as a way to top up the limited volumes of aid entering Gaza via the land border with Egypt after five months of war, which have seen Israel relentlessly bombard the enclave of two million people in pursuit of Hamas militants and infrastructure. The US last week started airdrops of food, though that was not seen as enough to arrest an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis.

“We are here because Palestinians, and in particular those in Gaza, need all our help,” Von der Leyen said. “We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe.”

The EU is increasingly frustrated about the blocking of aid flows to the enclave, though the bloc remains split over its approach to Israel and its military campaign. EU leaders will address the Middle East crisis when they hold a summit in Brussels later this month, but it’s unclear whether they will be able to agree on a joint statement calling for a humanitarian pause or a ceasefire.

Biden said on Thursday that he had ordered the military to create a temporary port on the Gaza coast, and used his State of the Union speech to call on Israel to let in more aid. However, US officials said it could take weeks to build the facility. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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