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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 29 MAY 2024

Israeli tanks reach centre of Rafah; Spain, Norway and Ireland officially recognise Palestinian state

Israeli tanks reach centre of Rafah; Spain, Norway and Ireland officially recognise Palestinian state
A Palestinian family travels in a donkey-drawn cart loaded with belongings as they flee Rafah during an Israeli military operation, southern Gaza Strip, 28 May 2024. (Photo: Reuters / Hatem Khaled / TPX images of the day)

Israeli tanks had on Tuesday reached the centre of Rafah, a sign the military could be nearing its goal of taking full control of the southern Gazan city.

Spain, Norway and Ireland have officially recognised a Palestinian state, deepening diplomatic tension with Israel as the war in Gaza rages on. 

Harvard University will no longer issue official statements about public matters that don’t “directly affect the university’s core function”, following months of turmoil over its response to the Hamas attack on Israel and ensuing retaliatory war in Gaza.

Israel’s invasion of Rafah reaches centre of town, says army

Israeli tanks had on Tuesday reached the centre of Rafah, a sign the military could be nearing its goal of taking full control of the southern Gazan city.  

Residents reported clashes between Israeli and Hamas forces in the centre of town on Tuesday, AFP said, suggesting troops had advanced beyond their initial incursions in the outskirts. An Israeli military official said tanks were being used as part of what he called a limited and precise set of operations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long said the country needed to start a ground invasion of Rafah to seek out the thousands of Hamas fighters and some leaders it says are based in the city, as well as some hostages. The plan has drawn international condemnation — including from the US — even after Israel insisted it would first allow civilians to leave.

The United Nations says roughly 1 million civilians have fled Rafah, having sought shelter there during fighting elsewhere in Gaza. The devastation caused earlier in the near eight-month war means there are limited places for them to go, a predicament made clear on Sunday when an Israeli airstrike killed an estimated 45 Palestinians at a tent camp northwest of the city.   

Israel said the attack was based on precise intelligence and that it killed two senior officials from Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union. Netanyahu called the incident a “tragic mistake.”

Another Israeli strike on Rafah on Tuesday killed 20 Palestinians, Gaza’s civil defence service reported. The death toll from the war as a whole is now more than 36,000, according to officials in the Hamas-run enclave.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, said an ongoing probe into the fire that killed 45 Gazans during the Sunday night airstrike suggests it was caused by a secondary explosion, possibly as a result of arms stored by Hamas in a separate structure.

He said the warplanes that killed the two Hamas commanders used the smallest munitions they had, and those alone couldn’t have ignited the fire. He added that Hamas rocket launchers had been found some 43m away and Hamas had embedded itself in that part of Rafah among sheltering civilians since 7 October. 

Hagari also played an intercepted phone call that he said was between two Gazans discussing the explosion and fire. One speaks of “ammunition that started exploding” and the other responds, “This is an ammunition warehouse. I tell you it exploded. I mean, the Jewish bombing wasn’t strong, it was a small missile because it didn’t create a large hole.” 

Israel’s military had some tunnels from Rafah into Egypt and destroyed them, Hagari said, adding that Egypt was being kept informed. 

Israel had pledged to invade Rafah while limiting civilian casualties, even as the city’s population swelled to about 1.4 million mostly displaced people. The US and other allies fear mass deaths and have urged Israel to cancel or sharply curtail plans for the assault. 

The war has inflamed the region and led to widespread criticism of Israel. The International Court of Justice published a ruling on Friday that most interpreted as ordering a halt to military activities in Rafah, while the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as leaders of Hamas. 

The conflict began when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel from Gaza on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and abducting 250.

Spain, Norway, Ireland formally recognise Palestinian state

Spain, Norway and Ireland have recognised a Palestinian state, deepening diplomatic tension with Israel as the war in Gaza raged.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced Spain’s plans in a speech ahead of a Cabinet meeting to approve the recognition. “I call for an immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and the release “of all hostages held by Hamas”, Sánchez said.

The two other European countries followed later in the day on Tuesday.

The Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, which erupted in October, has brought the issue of Palestinian statehood back to the fore of global politics. Israel says Hamas’ attack underscores how an independent state on its border would undermine its security. Yet many of Israel’s allies say a two-state solution — which has been discussed for decades — is what’s needed to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

Israel recalled its ambassadors to Spain, Ireland and Norway on 22 May, right after they made a coordinated announcement that they would recognise a Palestinian state, which would comprise the areas of Gaza and the West Bank. Although some 140 nations already do so, few in western Europe have.

The three European governments have called for an end to the war in Gaza and say that peace the only solution for peace in the region is two states. 

Harvard plans to stay silent on controversial issues after furore

Harvard University will no longer issue official statements about public matters that don’t “directly affect the university’s core function”, following months of turmoil over its response to the Hamas attack on Israel and ensuing retaliatory war in Gaza.

The decision follows recommendations by two faculty groups convened in April that examined how and when the university should speak as an institution and the nature of open inquiry and debate on campus. 

The tumult was fuelled in the days after 7 October when 30 student groups blamed the attack solely on Israel. Harvard president, Claudine Gay, who resigned in January, was slammed for the university’s slow response to the student statement and the Hamas attack. Critics included former leader Larry Summers, who contrasted the approach taken in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after which Harvard flew the Ukraine flag in solidarity, and when Gay, at the time Dean, wrote about the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

The change places Harvard in line with the University of Chicago, which adopted the principle of espousing institutional neutrality after the 1967 Kalven report. Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, said in an email to the Harvard community that the committee’s recommendations had been accepted and endorsed by the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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