Israel pounds Gaza as fears grow of push into Rafah

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES, Feb 3 — Israel pressed its blistering assault in the Gaza Strip today as fears grew of a push into Rafah, the southern city teeming with civilians uprooted by the nearly four-month war.

A constant barrage of air strikes and tank fire rocked Khan Yunis during the night, an AFP journalist said of the main city in southern Gaza that has been the focus of the Israeli offensive.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 100 people were killed across the Palestinian territory overnight, mostly women and children. The Israeli army said its forces killed “dozens of terrorists” in northern and central Gaza over the past 24 hours.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the fierce fighting have fled south to Rafah since the outbreak of the war, with their tents cramming spaces along streets and in parks.

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The city that had been home to 200,000 people now hosts more than half of Gaza’s 2.4 million population, the World Health Organization said yesterday.

Witnesses in Rafah said 12 people were killed in an air strike on a house owned by the Hijazi family.

“They bombed without any warning,” said 45-year-old Bilal Jad, a neighbour whose house was damaged in the attack. “There’s no safe place anywhere. The air strikes are everywhere.”

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Civilians who fled to Rafah have been pushed up against the border with Egypt, trying to avoid parts of the city exposed to the fighting in nearby Khan Yunis.

One of them, Abdulkarim Misbah, said he fled his home in Jabalia refugee camp in the north and reached Khan Yunis, only to be uprooted once more.

“We escaped last week from death in Khan Yunis, without bringing anything with us,” the 32-year-old said.

A man mourns over the body of his son killed in Israeli bombardment at the Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group — AFP pic

A man mourns over the body of his son killed in Israeli bombardment at the Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group — AFP pic

‘Pressure cooker of despair’

The United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA said it was deeply concerned about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Yunis, which has pushed more and more people south.

“Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next,” said OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had warned on Thursday that the military was set to train its sights on Rafah.

“We are achieving our missions in Khan Yunis, and we will also reach Rafah and eliminate terror elements that threaten us,” he said in a video message the defence ministry sent to journalists.

The war in Gaza was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages, and Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, including at least 27 believed to have been killed.

Vowing to crush Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,131 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry.

The fighting has devastated the narrow coastal strip, while an Israeli siege has resulted in dire shortages of food, water, fuel and medicines.

Women react upon identifying the body of a relative killed in Israeli bombardment at the Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group. — AFP pic

Women react upon identifying the body of a relative killed in Israeli bombardment at the Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group. — AFP pic

New push for truce

Image analysis released yesterday by the UN satellite centre UNITAR based on footage collected on January 6 and 7 showed “approximately 30 percent” of Gaza’s structures had been affected by the war.

The soaring civilian death toll in Gaza, as well as fears among Israelis over the fate of the hostages, have fuelled calls for a ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to the Middle East yet again in the coming days to press a new proposal involving the release of Israeli hostages in return for a pause in the fighting, the State Department said.

Blinken will visit Qatar and Egypt — the mediators of the proposal — as well as Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia starting tomorrow, it added.

The trip — his fifth since the war broke out — comes after Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said there were hopes of “good news” about a fresh pause to the fighting “in the next couple of weeks”.

Ansari said a truce proposal thrashed out in Paris had “been approved by the Israeli side” and received a “positive” initial response from Hamas as well.

But a source close to Hamas told AFP: “There is no agreement on the framework of the agreement yet — the factions have important observations — and the Qatari statement is rushed and not true.”

A woman reacts as she salvages belongings from the rubble of a destroyed house following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group. — AFP pic

A woman reacts as she salvages belongings from the rubble of a destroyed house following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 3, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas group. — AFP pic

US hits Iran proxies

A Hamas source said it had been presented with a plan involving an initial six-week pause in fighting that would see more aid delivered into Gaza and exchanges of certain Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

The leaders of Hamas and its Gaza ally Islamic Jihad, Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh and Ziyad al-Nakhalah, respectively, discussed the latest development and said any future ceasefire must lead to “a full withdrawal” of Israeli troops from Gaza, Haniyeh’s office said.

The war has sparked a surge in attacks by Iran-backed groups in the region in support of the Palestinians.

The US military launched a wave of air strikes against Iranian forces and Tehran-backed fighters in Iraq and Syria yesterday in retaliation for a drone attack in Jordan that killed three US soldiers tomorrow.

US forces in the Middle East and their allies have faced stepped-up attacks since the war in Gaza began, coming under fire more than 165 times since mid-October.

Friday’s air strikes were directed at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, and “affiliated militia groups”, and hit “more than 85 targets”, the US military said.

Also yesterday, the Israeli army said its defence system “successfully intercepted a surface-to-surface missile that approached Israeli territory in the area of the Red Sea”, with Yemen’s Huthi rebels claiming they had fired missiles towards Israel. — AFP

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