Palestinians in Rafah ‘awaiting execution’ as pressure grows on Israel to stop assault and agree ceasefire

Still no breakthrough in truce talks after US halts shipment of bombs to Israel in protest at assault on Gaza border city, Bel Trew reports, with Nedal Hamdouna in Rafah

Wednesday 08 May 2024 17:41 BST
Thousands of Palestinians are on the move in a bid to escape the onslaught
Thousands of Palestinians are on the move in a bid to escape the onslaught (Anadolu via Getty Images)

Palestinian civilians fleeing Israel’s assault on east Rafah have said they have been “sentenced to death” and are “awaiting execution”, as international pressure mounts on Israel to agree to a Gaza ceasefire.

On Monday Israel ordered a partial evacuation of Rafah, before tanks and troops moved in, seizing control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt. The military has pushed into eastern areas of the border city, which is sheltering 1.4 million people, the majority of whom are families displaced from other parts of the strip.

United Nations officials told The Independent that Israel’s military operation has severed the critical “arteries” of humanitarian aid to the besieged area, and that a further assault could lead to a “bloodbath” as civilians have nowhere safe to evacuate to.

The decision to go into Rafah came just hours after Israel rejected a ceasefire deal that Hamas agreed to, piling pressure on ongoing talks in Cairo.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has hailed the Rafah offensive as “a very significant step” towards destroying Hamas, is facing mounting domestic and international calls to agree to a halt to the fighting.

Protests have spread across the world. Qatar has asked for international intervention to prevent the rest of Rafah being invaded. And even the US, Israel’s closest ally and main weapons supplier, is withholding a delivery of bombs over the lack of civilian safeguards.

A Palestinian man gathers his belongings after an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah
A Palestinian man gathers his belongings after an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah (Reuters)

Washington has reportedly carefully reviewed the delivery of weapons that might be used in Rafah, and as a result paused a shipment consisting of 1,800 bombs weighing 2,000 pounds each and 1,700 bombs weighing 500 pounds each.

“We’ve been very clear... from the very beginning that Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack into Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battlespace,” the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, told a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

“And again, as we have assessed the situation, we have paused one shipment of high payload munitions.”

In Rafah, where battles raged, families said that some prices had doubled due to the closure of the Rafah crossing. Israel said it has reopened another crossing, Kerem Shalom, but the UN said there had been no aid deliveries through it.

Sahar, who is five times displaced across Gaza, said her family were heading for so-called humanitarian zones identified by the Israeli military but even they were not safe she said, warning of hunger as some food and supply items like sugar, chickpeas and cooking gas had started disappearing from shelves.

“Prices have increased, especially for baby milk and gas cooking, diapers, and olive oil too. There are people who cannot afford this,” she said.

“The negotiations were on the verge of success, and they told us that there was great progress. But suddenly, it failed and we appear to have gone right back to zero. We have no hope,” she added.

Iyad, who also fled east Rafah, told The Independent panicked families had little hope Israel would agree to a ceasefire deal, before widening their offensive.

Palestinians gather to receive food cooked by a charity in Rafah
Palestinians gather to receive food cooked by a charity in Rafah (Reuters)

“People fled carrying their tent, clothes and mattress and ran through the streets. I see we are sentenced to death and awaiting execution,” he said in desperation.

“I think the deal will be signed after they have finished the invasion of Rafah. Today a girl begged for my help getting a tent for her blind father. I am afraid that I will die and that no one will bury me.”

Israel has launched a punishing assault on Gaza and imposed a siege in retaliation for the 7 October attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, during which around 1,100 people were killed and another 250, including children, taken hostage.

Since then, Palestinian health officials say Israel’s assault has killed nearly 35,000 people, the majority women and children. The UN has warned of a looming famine and said that more than half the 2.3 million strong population of Gaza is experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger.

Despite global calls for a ceasefire, Israel this week rejected an Egyptian and Qatari negotiated three-phase deal which Hamas accepted, saying it fell short of their demands.

The proposal reportedly includes a first phase with a six-week ceasefire, an influx of aid to Gaza, the return of 33 Israeli hostages, alive or dead, and the release by Israel of 30 detained Palestinian children and women for each released Israeli hostage.

According to Al Jazeera, the ceasefire text that Hamas agreed to would then include the release of older, sick and wounded civilian hostages in exchange for elderly and sick Palestinian prisoners. Then each female Israeli soldier hostage would be released in exchange for 50 Palestinian prisoners, including those serving life sentences.

Israel said it was too watered down and talks continue in Cairo, where delegations from Hamas, Israel, the US, Egypt and Qatar are meeting.

Mr Netanyahu is facing increasing anger in Israel, where opinion is divided over the military offensive. Families of the hostages have held protests in Tel Aviv, demanding the government sign a deal to bring their loved ones home, and prioritise that over any military gains. Several family members told The Independent they were terrified that their loved ones would be killed in the crossfire.

Palestinians flee Rafah on Wednesday
Palestinians flee Rafah on Wednesday (Hatem Khaled/Reuters)

CIA chief William Burns, who has been shuttling around the region for talks on the ceasefire deal, reportedly met Mr Netanahu on Wednesday for closed-door negotiations.

Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said that it strongly condemns Israel’s Rafah incursion and called for international intervention to prevent the city from being invaded.

Gershon Baskin, a political activist and veteran negotiator who helped broker the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza in 2011, said an ongoing military offensive will not bring home the hostages safe and alive.

“The military offensive will only kill more hostages,” he told The Independent bluntly, adding he was concerned there was no way to bridge the gaps between Hamas and Israel’s versions of a truce deal. Hamas wants an end to the war and Mr Netanyahu’s government does not, he said.

“There’s a dead end here and I don’t know how you get it around it,” he added.

He said he believed the Israeli government’s plan was to finish the military offensive before any truce and that Mr Netanyahu, whose popularity has plummeted, wants to prolong the war to stave off potential elections and “to keep himself in power”.

Israel has denied restrictions on aid or allegations civilians were dying in the Rafah offensive. Israeli government spokesperson Avi Hyman said on Wednesday that Israel opened the Kerem Shalom land crossing to Gaza and claimed there was “surplus of aid” in Gaza but that Hamas was restricting it.

But the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, said no aid was getting into Gaza, despite desperate need. “We’re not receiving any aid into the #GazaStrip,” Scott Anderson, deputy director at UNRWA in Gaza, posted on X.

Ali, 46, who had fled to an area just past Israel's designated evacuation zone, said people in the south were starting to go hungry.

“There are not enough places for tents and prices – which were already expensive – have increased,” he said, describing the situation in east Rafah as “frightening”.

Hasan, 53, said he feared some would not be able to evacuate if the assault widened “because they do not have enough money for transportation or tents”.

“We are preparing ourselves for the worst.”

This article was amended on 10 May 2024 to include some more detail from the ceasefire deal reportedly under negotiation.

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