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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 23 APRIL 2024

Rafah concerns mount again; Israel yet to offer proof of UN staff’s Hamas ties

Rafah concerns mount again; Israel yet to offer proof of UN staff’s Hamas ties
Smoke rises from Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, on 20 April 2024 after an Israeli air strike. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Haitham Imad)

Israel is returning its focus to eliminating what it says is the last remaining stronghold of Hamas in Gaza — reviving international concerns about the fate of about one million civilians sheltering in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.

Israel has yet to provide evidence that workers for the United Nations relief agency in the Gaza Strip have widespread ties to terrorist groups, according to the results of an external probe.

Israeli air strikes overnight killed 24 Palestinians in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said. 

Israel turns focus back to Hamas and Rafah as Iran threat eases

Israel is returning its focus to eliminating what it says is the last remaining stronghold of Hamas in Gaza — reviving international concerns about the fate of about one million civilians sheltering in the south of the strip.

As tensions with Iran ease, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged late on Sunday to “increase the military and diplomatic pressure” on Hamas, with the goal of freeing the remaining hostages and declaring victory in the more than six-month war. That suggests an imminent and long-feared assault on Rafah, the Gazan city close to the Egyptian border where about half the enclave’s population have taken refuge.

“We will land more and painful blows on Hamas — soon,” Netanyahu said, without being more specific.

Israel has long signalled an intention to launch a ground operation in Rafah to achieve its goal of destroying Hamas, a response to the group’s 7 October invasion of the south of the country that killed about 1,200 people. Israeli military officials estimate 5,000 to 8,000 Hamas fighters are holed up in Rafah, along with some of its leaders, representing its last line of defence.

But the plan has been on hold for several weeks, most recently due to Israel’s need to focus on the tense confrontation with Iran, which has sparked fears around the world of a broader regional conflict.

Read more: Why Rafah is raising fears in Israel-Hamas war: QuickTake

The US has strongly urged Israel not to invade Rafah — at least while the city remains a safe haven for so many civilians. Palestinians in Gaza have been fleeing south since Israel began its campaign, largely at the military’s behest. Large swathes of the enclave have been levelled in the conflict, with the two biggest cities suffering a particularly fierce bombardment. Health authorities say more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Iran-backed Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, still holds about 130 of the initial 250 hostages taken on 7 October, although some are understood to be dead. Netanyahu is under intense pressure domestically to secure their safe return, with anti-government rallies attracting tens of thousands of protesters, including the families of abductees.

Israel has a range of options for how to invade Rafah, according to an Israeli official with knowledge of the preparations. The country’s military doesn’t necessarily need to attack the city with all its might — which would likely worsen a humanitarian crisis — and could instead move forces from one neighbourhood to the next and evacuate civilians at the same time, the person said.

Israel is preparing a significant expansion of the humanitarian zone in Gaza in preparation for a ground entry into Rafah, according to the Arabic-language unit of Israeli state broadcaster Kan. That will enable it to accommodate about one million displaced people, while five field hospitals are planned for the area, Kan said on Monday.

US officials have denied reports that Washington struck a deal with Israel that gave a green light for a Rafah invasion in return for limited retaliation against Iran for its recent large-scale attack. Tehran carried out an unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel on 14 April, a response to a deadly air strike on its diplomatic compound in Damascus two weeks earlier.

Israel and its allies intercepted almost all the projectiles, and the Jewish state reportedly responded with more limited fire on Friday. Iran downplayed that assault as a failure, indicating it doesn’t plan to hit back.

Top Israeli and US officials last week discussed both Iran and the Rafah plans, agreeing “on the shared objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah”, the White House said in a statement on 18 April. “US participants expressed concerns with various courses of action in Rafah, and Israeli participants agreed to take these concerns into account.”

Israel yet to offer proof UN staff in Gaza have ties to Hamas

Israel has yet to provide evidence that workers for the United Nations relief agency in the Gaza Strip have widespread ties to terrorist groups, according to the results of an external probe.

The UN-commissioned investigation found “neutrality-related issues persist” at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), including cases where facilities were “misused for political or military gains”, according to a report released on Monday. But it didn’t come to any conclusions on the Israeli claims that launched the probe: that as much as 10% of the relief agency’s 12,000 workers were members of the militant groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations,” wrote the review team, led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. “However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this.”

The probe is separate from a UN investigation looking into Israeli claims that several UNRWA employees participated in the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel. The UN has dismissed at least nine UNRWA workers over that claim.

UNRWA serves about two million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and has been the main conduit for aid in Gaza since Israel launched a military campaign there to eradicate Hamas.

The review found that Hamas — which governed the Gaza Strip before Israel’s response to the 7 October attack — made eight incursions into UNRWA facilities in 2022. The report noted the agency “does not have policing, military or wider investigative capacities or competencies required to detect such breaches”. It recommended the UN strengthen collaboration with countries including Israel on the misuse of facilities.

Israeli air strikes kill 24 in Rafah, say Gaza health officials

Israeli air strikes overnight killed 24 Palestinians in Rafah, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said.

The two airstrikes late on Sunday and early Monday targeted two houses in Rafah, it said. The ministry and local reports said most of the dead were women and children.

More than one million residents of Gaza have been sheltering in the small city after having fled their homes since the start of Israel’s offensive in October.

EU set to sanction Iran over missile attacks on Israel

European Union foreign and defence ministers were poised to reach a political agreement on Monday to impose new sanctions on Iran over its attack on Israel.

The restrictive measures further expand existing sanctions that the EU imposed on Tehran for supplying Russia with drones to also include missiles and drones that Iran has provided its proxies in the Middle East. The sanctions may not be formally adopted until later in the week to allow for the technical work to be completed.

“I support extending the drones sanctions against Iran factually and geographically, concerning deliveries not only to Russia but also proxies, and including ballistic missiles,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters in Luxembourg ahead of the meeting. “I expect a political agreement today.”

Countries including Germany and Sweden are also pushing to add Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp to the EU’s terror list, but an assessment of this by the bloc’s legal service is incomplete.

Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over 7 October failure

The Israeli military said the head of its intelligence division quit over the failure to prevent the 7 October invasion by Hamas.

Aharon Haliva, the head of military intelligence, handed in his resignation after 2½ years in the role, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement on Monday.

In the aftermath of 7 October, Haliva accepted the blame for failing to prevent the incursion.

“The intelligence division under my command did not live up to the task we were entrusted with,” Haliva said in his resignation letter, made public by the IDF. “Until the end of my term, I will do everything to bring about the defeat of Hamas and those seeking to harm us and for the return of all the hostages and captives to their homes and land.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    A majority of Europe and USA tried to fit Israel in their family trees, it seriously affected their logical mindset to a point where they are dismantling the bodies set up to protect democracy and prevent crimes against humanity.
    The use of their weapons is a trap without any visible off ramp.
    The fact that Israel is their spoilt brat they cannot reign in, makes things worse.
    Iran, Russia,North Korea,China have been there and viewed as a calculated and managed threat toUSA and allies, they entered Syria to curb that threat.
    What changed?
    Israel has since it’s birth from surrogate parents in Europe dreamed of a Palestine without Palestinians,in every conflict with armed groups Israel has made sure women and children are wiped out.
    The October 7 attack was different because it was caught global attention and in Israel’s view it was an opportunity to finally cleanse the Palestinians and believed the global world will be stuck with their self created threat and imaginery right to self defence.
    It seemed possible they expressed the view to the whole world in their separate portfolios, from president down to the minister of agriculture, Europe never showed condemnation although this was a direct disregard of the genocide act.
    Israel bombed a consulate, protected in the Vienna act, still no condemnation from the Surrogate parents of the spoiled brat.
    Not even threats of WW3 will shake the adopted delinquent terrorist State from European family trees.
    Financially they benefit.

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