Officials from the US, Egypt, Israel and Qatar met in Cairo on Tuesday in another bid to agree a Gaza truce as calls grew for Israel to hold back on a planned assault on the enclave’s southernmost city, crammed with over a million displaced people.
Rafah, whose pre-war population was about 300,000, is heaving with homeless people living in tent camps and makeshift shelters who fled there from Israeli bombardments in areas of Gaza further north during more than four months of war.
Israel says it wants to flush out Hamas militants from hideouts in Rafah and free Israeli hostages being held there, and is making plans to evacuate trapped Palestinian civilians. But no plan has been forthcoming and aid agencies say the displaced have nowhere else to go in the shattered territory.
Israeli tanks shelled the eastern sector of Rafah overnight, causing waves of panic, residents said.
They said displaced people – dozens so far – had begun to leave Rafah after Israeli shelling and air strikes in recent days.
“I fled Al-Maghazi, came to Rafah, and here I am, returning to Al-Maghazi,” said Nahla Jarwan, referring to the coastal refugee camp from which she fled earlier in the conflict.
“Last night in Rafah was very tough. We’re going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear – displaced from one area to another. Hopefully Al-Maghazi area will be safe, God willing.” But she added: “Wherever we go, there is no safety.”
Gaza health officials announced 133 new Palestinian deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 28,473 killed and 68,146 wounded since Oct. 7, when 1,200 people were killed in a Hamas rampage across the border into Israel, triggering the war.
Many other people are believed to be buried under rubble of destroyed buildings across the densely populated Gaza Strip, much of which is in ruins. Supplies of food, water and other essentials are running out and diseases are spreading.
About half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now squeezed into Rafah.
“Since Israel said they are invading Rafah soon…, we read our last prayers every night. Every night we say farewell to one another and to relatives outside Rafah,” said Aya, 30, who is living in a tent with her mother, grandmother and five siblings.
CEASEFIRE AND HOSTAGES
In Cairo, renewed efforts were underway to secure a truce in a war whose impact has rippled across the Middle East. Egypt’s state-linked Al Qahera News said talks had begun involving US, Qatari, Egyptian and Israeli officials.
“The sides are looking for a formula that will be acceptable to Hamas, who says it is only possible to sign a deal once it is based on an Israeli commitment to ending its war and pulling out its forces from Gaza,” a Palestinian official told Reuters.
The official said Hamas had told the participants it does not trust Israel not to renew the war if the Israeli hostages being held by Palestinian militants are released.
The hostages were seized in Hamas’ raid into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Securing their return is a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as well as wiping out Hamas, which governs the small coastal territory.
A senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, blamed Israel for the lack of progress in peace efforts so far. There has been one truce to date, lasting a week at the end of November.
There was no comment from Israel on the status of the talks. It says it tries to minimize civilian deaths and that Hamas fighters hide among civilians, something the group denies.
‘PRETTY MUCH UNLIVABLE’
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who will visit Israel on Wednesday, said with respect to Rafah that Israel had the right to defend itself against terrorism, but this did not mean expelling the population.
South Africa asked the World Court on Tuesday to consider whether Israel’s plan to extend its offensive into Rafah required additional emergency measures to safeguard the rights of Palestinians.
In a case brought by South Africa, the International Court of Justice last month ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent its troops committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel denies it is committing genocide and had asked the court to reject the case outright.
Pretoria’s government voiced concern that an offensive would result in further large-scale killing, harm and destruction.
Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, said it had not been informed of any Israeli evacuation plan for Rafah and was not part of it.
“Where are you going to evacuate people to, as no place is safe across the Gaza Strip, the north is shattered, riddled with unexploded weapons, it’s pretty much unlivable,” she said.
The UN humanitarian office also said it would not participate in any forced evacuation.
US President Joe Biden said on Monday Washington was working on a hostage deal to bring “immediate and sustained” calm to Gaza for at least six weeks.
Biden has urged Israel to refrain from a Rafah offensive without a viable plan to protect civilians.
In the latest bloodshed, Israel’s military said its forces had killed dozens of Palestinian fighters in clashes in southern and central Gaza over the last 24 hours.
Gaza health officials said an Israeli strike on a house in Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed 16 Palestinians overnight. They said another air strike on a car in Gaza City later on Tuesday killed six people including children.