UN chief warns of 'epic disaster' as Israel tightens vice on Rafah

Palestinians pile their belongings on a vehicle as it drives to safer areas in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 10, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. [AFP]

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned Gaza risked an "epic humanitarian disaster" Friday as Israel pressed military operations around its far-southern city of Rafah crippling the work of aid agencies.

Earlier this week, Israeli ground troops seized eastern areas of the city, including the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but they have yet to enter its main built-up area.

AFP journalists witnessed artillery strikes on the city Friday and the Israeli army said operations were continuing in the east of the city.

"On the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing, the troops eliminated several terror cells during close-quarters combat and with an aerial strike," the military said.

But there was no sign yet of the full-scale assault promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even after US President Joe Biden threatened on Wednesday to halt some arms deliveries if he goes ahead.

"If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone," the hawkish premier said in a statement late on Thursday. "We are determined and we are united in order to defeat our enemies and those who want to destroy us."

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel cannot defeat Hamas and extinguish any possibility of the militant group repeating its bloody October 7 attack without sending ground troops into Rafah in search of remaining Hamas fighters.

But Washington has warned that the reputational damage Israel will suffer if it storms a city where an estimated 1.4 civilians are sheltering will far outweigh any possible military gain.

The White House renewed its opposition Friday but said it saw no major operation yet against the city.

"We're obviously watching it with concern, of course, but I wouldn't go so far as to say what we've seen here in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad, large (or) major ground operation," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Displaced again

Israel's military operations around Rafah have already had a severe impact on Gaza civilians, UN agencies said.

The Rafah crossing, which Israeli troops closed on Tuesday, is the only one normally used for deliveries of fuel and the United Nations said the resulting exhaustion of stocks inside Gaza had effectively halted aid agency operations.

The Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian civil affairs, COGAT, said it had delivered 200,000 litres (52,834 gallons) of fuel to Gaza using a different crossing on Friday.

That is the quantity that the United Nations says is needed every day to keep aid trucks moving and hospital generators working.

More than 100,000 people, many of them already displaced from other areas of Gaza, have fled Rafah this week, the United Nations said.

Many have returned to the city of Khan Yunis, where intense fighting raged earlier this year, or are crowded into shelters along the coast in the central town of Deir al-Balah.

Displaced civilian Malek al-Zaza said he had found "no food" and "no water" in Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.

"No one is asking about us, no one is looking for us... We only have God looking out for us," he said.

The Israeli army said four soldiers were killed on Friday when an "explosive device" went off near a school in Gaza City.

The deaths took to 271 the Israeli military's losses in the Gaza campaign since the start of its ground offensive on October 27.

The army said rocket fire from Gaza had wounded an Israeli civilian in the southern city of Beersheba. It was the first time since December that the city had come under Palestinian rocket attack.

Back to 'square one'

The war began with Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,943 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Israeli and Hamas negotiating teams left Cairo on Thursday after what Egypt called a "two-day round" of indirect negotiations on the terms of a Gaza truce.

Hamas said that Israel's rejection of a truce plan submitted by mediators at the talks had sent the negotiations back to "square one".

UN and European officials condemned attacks against the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which forced it to temporarily close its headquarters in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on Thursday.

UNWRA chief Philippe Lazzarini said the agency had been forced to act after twin arson attacks by "Israeli extremists" on the compound's perimeter put the lives of staff at "serious risk".

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc "strongly condemns the attack".

"It is Israel's responsibility to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers. UNRWA is an irreplaceable lifeline to millions in Gaza and the region," he said on X.

Symbolic UN Palestine vote

The UN General Assembly  voted overwhelmingly in support of a Palestinian bid for full membership of the world body, a symbolic move after the United States vetoed the measure in the Security Council.

The resolution, which states that the Palestinians should be admitted to the UN and grants them some additional rights as observers, received 143 votes for, 9 against and 25 abstentions.

The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority said the UN vote showed Palestine "deserves full membership".

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said it sent the message to Hamas that "violence pays off".

Richard Gowan, an analyst with Brussels-based think tank the International Crisis Group, said: "The symbolism is what matters.

"This resolution is a very clear signal to Israel and the US that it is time to take Palestinian statehood seriously."

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