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Israel’s Rafah evacuation order heightens global alarm

US diplomacy Israel-Hamas war

Israel called on Palestinians to leave eastern Rafah Monday ahead of a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city, amid increasing global alarm about the consequences of such a move.

The evacuation call followed disagreement between Israel and Hamas over the Palestinian militant group’s demands to end the seven-month war, during weekend negotiations in Cairo.

Egyptian state-linked media said the talks stalled after a rocket attack claimed by Hamas’s armed wing killed four Israeli soldiers on Sunday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to send ground troops into Rafah regardless of any truce, defying international concerns.

The foreign ministry in Cairo warned in a statement of “grave humanitarian risks” for more than one million Gazans sheltering there and urged Israel to “exercise the utmost restraint”.

President Joe Biden and Netanyahu spoke and Biden restated “his clear position”, the White House said.

It also said the Israeli premier “agreed to ensure the Kerem Shalom crossing is open for humanitarian assistance for those in need”.

Israel closed the border crossing Sunday after four soldiers were killed there by rockets fired from the Rafah area, an attack claimed by Hamas.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk in a statement called Israel’s evacuation order on Monday “inhumane”.

“It runs contrary to the basic principles of international humanitarian and human rights laws,” he said.


– ‘Thousands’ leaving –


Gaza’s bloodiest-ever war began following Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel estimates that 128 of the hostages abducted by militants remain in Gaza, including 35 whom the military says are dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has conducted a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,735 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

About 1.2 million people are sheltering in Rafah, the World Health Organization says.

Hamas said Israel was planning a large-scale offensive “without regard for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe” in the besieged Gaza Strip or for the fate of hostages held there.

Israel’s “limited” and temporary evacuation order aimed “to get people out of harm’s way” and followed Sunday’s deadly rocket fire on the Kerem Shalom crossing.

Gazan civil defence and aid officials said Israeli jets had struck areas of Rafah including Al-Shuka and Al-Salam, both of which had been told to evacuate.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said “thousands” of Gazans were on the move, leaving eastern Rafah.

Israel’s military in a statement urged eastern Rafah residents to head for the “expanded humanitarian area” at Al-Mawasi on the coast.

That area “includes field hospitals, tents and increased amounts of food, water, medication and additional supplies,” it said.


– ‘Where can we go?’ –


But aid groups said the Israeli-designated safe zone was not ready for such an influx.

“The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services”, said Norwegian Refugee Council director Jan Egeland.

Asked how many people should move, an Israeli military spokesman said: “The estimate is around 100,000 people.”

The Red Crescent said the designated evacuation zone hosts around 250,000 people, many of them already uprooted from elsewhere.

Palestinian man Abdul Rahman Abu Jazar, 36, said the area his family was told to seek refuge in “does not have enough room for us to make tents” because it is already full.

“Where we can go?” he asked.

On Monday EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called the evacuation orders “unacceptable” and urged Israel to “renounce” a ground offensive.

The French foreign ministry said it “strongly opposed” an offensive on Rafah.

A Palestinian presidency statement called on Washington to prevent a “massacre” in Rafah.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi posted on X: “Another massacre of the Palestinians is in the making… All must act now to prevent it.”

UNICEF warned that around 600,000 children packed into Rafah face “further catastrophe”.

The main aid group in Gaza, UNRWA, said “an Israeli offensive in Rafah would mean more civilian suffering and deaths”.

The UN agency “is not evacuating”, it added.


– ‘Breakdown’ –


Soon after the war started, Israel told Palestinians in northern Gaza to move south to “safe zones” –- including Rafah near the Egyptian border.

But Rafah has been repeatedly bombed and Palestinians say nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Emergency workers said air strikes killed 16 people in Rafah on Sunday, hours after Hamas rockets killed the Israeli soldiers.

The strike led Israeli authorities to close the crossing.

Al-Qahera News, linked to Egyptian intelligence services, cited a high-level source on Monday as saying the rocket attack “caused truce negotiations to bog down”.

Despite the evacuation order, Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif al-Qanou told AFP the movement “will continue the negotiations positively”.

CIA director Bill Burns, a mediator in the talks, was expected in Doha to meet Qatar’s premier for “emergency” discussions, a source with knowledge of the truce talks told AFP.

The source, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the meeting would try “to see if the talks can be brought back on track”.

A Hamas official close to the negotiations said Sunday the group’s negotiators were returning to Doha for “consultations”, after weekend talks — with no Israeli delegation present — failed to produce a breakthrough.

Hamas negotiators are due back in Cairo on Tuesday, Al-Qahera News said.

The Qatar-based political chief of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, accused Netanyahu of sabotaging the talks, which Netanyahu’s office on Monday called “an absolute lie”.

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, told AFP that both the Hamas rocket fire on Sunday and Israel’s evacuation order can be seen in the context of the truce talks.

“Whenever there’s a breakdown, then the violence escalates,” he said.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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