Mediator says Gaza truce 'not promising' as Israel rejects calls to spare Rafah

Truce efforts intensified this week as Qatar and fellow mediators Egypt and the United States scrambled to secure a ceasefire before Israeli troops enter Rafah

February 18, 2024 11:32 am | Updated 05:41 pm IST - Gaza Strip

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this handout picture released on February 17, 2024.

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this handout picture released on February 17, 2024. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Mediator Qatar acknowledged on Saturday that prospects for a new pause in Israel's war with Hamas were "not really promising" as Israel rejected appeals to hold off on a threatened assault on the Gaza city of Rafah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge, were effectively telling the country to "lose the war".

Truce efforts intensified this week as Qatar and fellow mediators Egypt and the United States scrambled to secure a ceasefire before Israeli troops enter Rafah, the last major population centre in Gaza untouched by Israeli ground troops.

Despite a direct appeal from U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this week, Mr. Netanyahu insisted the operation would go ahead regardless of whether a hostage release deal was agreed with Hamas.

"Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah," he said at a televised news conference Saturday.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who met with negotiators from both Israel and Hamas this week, said efforts for a ceasefire had been complicated by the insistence of "a lot of countries" that any new truce involve further releases of hostages.

"The pattern in the last few days is not really very promising," he said at the Munich Security Conference.

His assessment came as Hamas threatened to suspend its involvement in talks unless relief supplies are brought into the north, where aid agencies have warned of looming famine.

"Negotiations cannot be held while hunger is ravaging the Palestinian people," a senior source in the Palestinian militant group told AFP, asking not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak on the issue.

Earlier, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the group's demands, which Mr. Netanyahu called "ludicrous".

They include a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu also rejected pressure from some Western governments for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

"After the terrible massacre of October 7, there can be no greater reward for terrorism than that and it will prevent any future peace settlement," he said.

The hawkish premier was speaking as thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, calling for an immediate election and accusing the government of abandoning hostages.

"I am begging the prime minister and the cabinet to enter the negotiations," said former hostage Sharon Aloni-Cunio, who was released along with her twin children in November but whose husband remains in Gaza.

Fears for patients after raid

Israel said Saturday it detained 100 people at one of Gaza's main hospitals after troops raided the complex, with fears mounting for patients and staff trapped inside.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams are stuck without water, food and electricity in Nasser Hospital in Gaza's main southern city of Khan Yunis, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas's Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the October 7 attack that triggered the war.

Intense fighting has raged around Nasser Hospital — one of the territory's last major medical facilities that remains operational.

The Israeli military said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was "credible intelligence" that hostages had been held there. It later acknowledged it found no firm evidence that they had.

The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to Gaza's health ministry.

A witness, who declined to be named for safety reasons, told AFP the Israeli forces had shot "at anyone who moved inside the hospital".

The Gaza war began with Hamas's October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, 130 of whom are still in Gaza, including 30 who are presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory assault on Gaza has killed at least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

'We need food now'

In northern Gaza, many are so desperate for food they are grinding up animal feed.

"We're going to die from hunger, not by bombs or missiles," said Mohammed Nassar, 50, from Jabalia in northern Gaza.

As a much-needed delivery of supplies arrived in southern Gaza Saturday, the UN warned that Gazans are close to famine.

Palestinians in Rafah have grown so hungry that they are stopping aid trucks to take whatever they can manage, according to the UN.

With intense fighting around Khan Yunis, even more people are fleeing into Rafah, despite the risk of an imminent invasion there too, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The promised military operation has ignited speculation that Palestinian refugees could be forced into neighbouring Egypt.

After satellite images appeared to show extensive construction work along the border, an Egyptian human rights monitor claimed preparations were underway for a camp to receive displaced Palestinians in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt has publicly denied any such plans and since the start of the war has refused to open its border to refugees.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said there is "no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt", while at Saturday's press conference Netanyahu told reporters there was "a lot of space north of Rafah" where civilians could resettle.

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