Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway

Adel Zaanoun - Agence France-Presse
Israel vows to push into Gaza's far-south as truce talks underway
Smoke billows following Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 25, 2024, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group.
AFP / Said Khatib

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES — Israel's prime minister said Sunday a potential ceasefire in its war against Hamas militants would only delay a ground invasion of Gaza's southern city Rafah that shelters more than half of the conflict-battered territory's population.

Israel's ally the United States said ongoing mediation efforts produced "an understanding" towards a ceasefire and hostage release, while a Hamas source said the group insisted on the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Amid a spiralling humanitarian crisis, the main UN aid agency for Palestinians urged political action to avert famine in Gaza.

Egyptian, Qatari and US "experts" met in Doha for talks also attended by Israeli and Hamas representatives, state-linked Egyptian media said, in the latest effort to secure a truce before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that a military operation into Rafah, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, would put Israel within weeks of "total victory" over Hamas whose October 7 attack triggered the war.

"If we have a deal, it will be delayed somewhat, but it will happen," he told CBS of the looming ground invasion.

Such an operation is widely feared to bring more mass civilian casualties in Rafah, where around 1.4 million Palestinians -- most of them displaced from other areas -- have converged.

"If we don't have a deal, we'll do it anyway," Netanyahu said.

"It has to be done because total victory is our goal and total victory is within reach -- not months away, weeks away, once we begin the operation."

Dire food shortages in northern Gaza which have sent Palestinians fleeing south were "a man-made disaster" that can be mitigated, said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

"Famine can still be avoided through genuine political will to grant access and protection to meaningful assistance."

The UN has said it faces restrictions, particularly on aid deliveries to northern Gaza.

The Doha talks follow a weekend meeting in Paris, without Gaza rulers Hamas, where representatives "came to an understanding among the four of them about what the basic contours of a hostage deal for temporary ceasefire would look like", White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN.

A Hamas source told AFP that "some new amendments" were proposed on contentious issues, but "Israel did not present any substantive position on the terms of the ceasefire and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip".

Netanyahu has dismissed the troop withdrawal demand as "delusional".


More than four months into the war, desperate families in Gaza's north have been forced to scavenge for food as fighting and looting have stopped humanitarian deliveries.

Hundreds of Palestinians headed south whichever way they could, walking down garbage-strewn roads between the blackened shells of bombed-out buildings, said an AFP correspondent.

In northern Gaza's Jabalia, displaced man Marwan Awadieh said the area "has become completely uninhabitable" and food was desperately scarce.

"Even the animal fodder that we had resorted to is now unavailable," he said, and wild herbs have "been depleted".

Red Crescent volunteer Ezzedin Halaweh said food shortages in the north were "leading to severe health issues, especially among children".

Israeli forces continued striking targets across the Palestinian territory and battling militants in heavy urban combat centred on the southern city of Khan Yunis, near Rafah.

The Israeli military campaign has killed at least 29,692 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The war broke out after Hamas's unprecedented attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

'Expanding the conflict'

Militants also took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's army confirmed Sunday the death of soldier Oz Daniel, 19, whose "body is still held captive by Hamas" according to the Hostages and Missing Families Forum which said he was killed on the day of the attack.

Mediators have voiced hope a temporary truce and a hostage-prisoner exchange can be secured before the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.

Jordan's King Abdullah II warned fighting during the holy month "will increase the threat of expanding the conflict", according to a royal statement.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, whose country hosts Hamas leaders and had helped broker a one-week truce in November, is due in Paris this week for talks on the Gaza conflict, the French presidency said.

Media reports suggest the warring parties are weighing a six-week halt to fighting and the initial exchange of dozens of female, underage and ill hostages for several hundred Palestinian detainees held by Israel.

Hezbollah threat

Across from overcrowded Rafah, neighboring Egypt has kept its border closed to a mass refugee flight, saying it will not help facilitate any operation to push Palestinians out of Gaza.

But satellite images show it has also built a walled enclosure next to Gaza, in an apparent effort to brace for the possible arrival of large numbers of refugees.

Inside Israel, public pressure has grown on Netanyahu from the families of hostages demanding swifter action, and from a resurgent anti-government protest movement.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said there would be no let-up in action against Lebanon's powerful Hamas ally Hezbollah, whose militants have traded near-daily fire with Israeli forces since early October.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Israel's enemy Iran.

If diplomatic efforts fail to end the deadly cross-border hostilities, "we will do it by force", Gallant warned in a video message from a northern army base near Lebanon.

"If anyone thinks that when we reach a deal (with Hamas)... it will ease what is happening here -- they are wrong."

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