World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 8 MAY 2024

Israel gains control of Rafah border crossing; ceasefire differences can be resolved — US

Israel gains control of Rafah border crossing; ceasefire differences can be resolved — US
The Israeli military operation on the Rafah border crossing on 7 May 2024. (Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Handout via Reuters)

Israel’s move to take control of the Rafah crossing into Egypt has sparked sharp debate about its end goal: Is this the start of a long-threatened invasion of the southern Gaza city, or an attempt to pressure Hamas to ease conditions for a ceasefire and the release of hostages?

The Biden administration said Israel and Hamas should be able to resolve their differences over a proposed ceasefire, contradicting top Israeli officials who said the two remained far apart.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that “the Hamas [ceasefire] offer yesterday was designed to prevent our forces from entering Rafah. That didn’t happen.”

Israel edges into Rafah with tension high over stalled talks

Israel’s move to take control of the Rafah crossing into Egypt has sparked sharp debate about its end goal: Is this the start of a long-threatened invasion of the southern Gaza city, or an attempt to pressure Hamas to ease conditions for a ceasefire and the release of hostages?

The answer is both, according to Israeli officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the military, who spoke about internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to allow the more than 1.4 million civilians sheltering in Rafah to move to safety before dispatching troops into the city, where he contends as many as 8,000 Hamas fighters are entrenched along with their leaders and more than 100 Israeli hostages. On Monday, Israel ordered some civilians to leave so that an attack could get under way.

But international negotiators, including from the US, are at a delicate phase in talks to pause or end the seven-month war — a deal that would include the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and an increase of humanitarian aid to the embattled coastal strip.  

On Monday night, as horse-drawn wagons heaped with bedding trundled out of Rafah and Israeli tanks began their advance, Hamas made a shock announcement that it had accepted a ceasefire deal.

Israel’s war Cabinet held an emergency session to assess the offer — and quickly rejected it. That was due to two details: the initial release of 33 Israelis could be made up of dead bodies rather than living hostages, and a permanent rather than temporary ceasefire would be baked into the deal — a long-held Israeli red line.

The tanks resumed their movements and took control of the Egypt crossing on Tuesday morning, blocking the movement of both people and aid.

Netanyahu said on Tuesday that “the Hamas offer yesterday was designed to prevent our forces from entering Rafah. That didn’t happen.” He said the latest Hamas offer was “very far from Israel’s essential demands”. 

An Israeli military spokesperson described its activities in Rafah as a “precise counterterrorism operation” following intelligence that indicated the crossing was being used “for terrorist purposes.”

Benny Gantz, a centrist opposition leader who’s part of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, called initial moves into Rafah “an integral part of our continued efforts and our commitment to bring the hostages back”.

That pointed to Israel’s dual objective: to destroy Hamas and bring home the remainder of those taken by the Iran-backed militant group on 7 October.

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the US and European Union, issued warnings on Monday that if Israel invaded Rafah, it “will not be a picnic”.

Israel’s counterattack in Gaza has so far killed more than 34,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and the US and other officials say that an assault on Rafah risks greatly increasing that number. 

As Israel urges Palestinian civilians to leave eastern Rafah and moves tanks into the city, Netanyahu is performing several tasks: preparing for a possible invasion, squeezing Hamas, keeping his coalition together and trying to show he’s taking care of civilians. What follows remains unclear. 

US says Israel and Hamas can resolve differences over ceasefire

The Biden administration said Israel and Hamas should be able to resolve their differences over a proposed ceasefire, contradicting top Israeli officials who said the two remained far apart.

“A close assessment of the two sides’ positions suggests they should be able to close the remaining gaps,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “Hamas responded yesterday. There were amendments offered. And that’s the task of negotiating. That’s what negotiations are all about.”

International negotiators, including from the US, are seeking to pause or end the seven-month war through a deal that would include the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and an increase in humanitarian aid. On Monday, Hamas said it had accepted a ceasefire proposal from Qatar and Egypt, but Israel swiftly rejected that offer.

Israel’s troops take control of Rafah border crossing in Gaza

Israeli forces took control of the Rafah border crossing in Gaza on Tuesday morning ahead of a possible assault on the city.

It was the first time Israel’s army had entered that part of Gaza since the war with Hamas began in October.

The development came a day after Israel told residents in parts of eastern Rafah to leave immediately and launched more airstrikes in some areas of the city. Netanyahu has said civilians would be allowed to move out before any ground attack. 

Palestinian officials said all aid flows from Egypt into Gaza had stopped after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took over the Rafah crossing.

The army had halted “the movement of people and aid completely”, the Hamas-run border authority said. Tanks drove through the area in the far south of the Gaza Strip and soldiers replaced Palestinian flags with Israeli ones.

The IDF said it acted “following intelligence that indicated the Rafah crossing was being used for terrorist purposes”.

Hamas called it a “dangerous escalation against a civilian facility protected by international law”.

The border is the main entry point for aid into Gaza. Its closure follows the shutting of the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza on Sunday after Hamas rockets killed four Israeli soldiers there.

The US has been urging Israel for weeks to allow more food and other supplies in, with the United Nations saying parts of the territory are on the verge of famine.

Israel says that, for now, 100,000 people fall under its “evacuation order” in eastern Rafah. One Israeli official said the operation would probably last for about two weeks.

More than 1.4 million people are sheltering in Rafah, most having fled from other areas of Gaza to seek shelter. Israel has largely defeated Hamas in the rest of the territory, but says around 5,000 to 8,000 fighters and senior leaders are in Rafah.

Israel also believes it’s the location of most of the remaining hostages held by Hamas.

Egypt condemned “in the strongest terms” Israel’s takeover of the Gaza side of the border post. Saudi Arabia called for a ceasefire “to stop the genocide carried out by the occupation forces against defenceless civilians”.

Israel says ceasefire plan backed by Hamas falls short

Hamas said it had agreed to a ceasefire proposal for the Gaza Strip, but Israel’s war Cabinet unanimously rejected it as “far from Israel’s necessary demands”, dashing hopes for an immediate pause in the fighting.

Israel vowed to continue “its operation in Rafah to exert military pressure on Hamas” but also said it would send a delegation to meet with mediators “to exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement.” In a statement later on Monday, the IDF announced fresh airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Rafah area.

The Israeli response followed hours after Hamas had posted a statement to Telegram saying that Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political office, had accepted a Qatari and Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Questions were raised almost immediately about the details, with both US and Israeli officials saying they were studying the Hamas response.

Benny Gantz, a centrist who joined the war Cabinet, said in a post on Telegram that the proposal offered by Hamas “does not correspond to the dialogue that has taken place so far with the mediators and has significant gaps”. He said an Israeli delegation nonetheless would meet with negotiators in Cairo.

Hamas and Israel have been negotiating via Qatar, Egypt and the US on an agreement that would see the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza in exchange for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails. It would also include a pause in fighting.

The proposal and ceasefire that Hamas said it could accept had minor wording changes from the one that Israel and the US had presented to the group, The New York Times reported.

The proposal calls for the eventual enactment of a “sustainable calm”, the paper reported, citing two officials familiar with the revised plan. The officials, who weren’t identified, said the changes were made by Arab mediators in consultation with US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns and the wording was something all sides had earlier said they could accept.

The officials also said they expected warring parties would clash over the definition of “sustainable calm”, the paper reported.

Israeli Cabinet minister Itamar Ben Gvir was the first Israeli official to address the Hamas response to the ceasefire proposal, saying it was no more than a trick.

“Hamas’ shenanigans have only one answer: an immediate order to occupy Rafah! Increasing military pressure, crushing Hamas, and proceeding to its ultimate defeat,” Ben Gvir said in a post on X. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • JP K says:

    Consider the difference in reporting between Bloomberg and Aljazeera (now banned in Israel) by looking at sub-headings.

    Bloomberg:
    * Delivery of 2,000-pound, and 500-pound bombs was held up
    * Biden administration worries about damage to urban areas

    Aljazeera:
    * Israel has continued to bomb Rafah and the rest of the Gaza Strip as Palestinians remain trapped following the seizure of the vital Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt.
    * A full-scale invasion of Rafah by Israeli forces would be “a strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare”, UN secretary-general warns.

    The actions of Israel must be seen the context of executing a genocide. The actions of countries like the US and Germany which continue to provide military support and political cover must be seen as complicit.

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