Israel strikes Rafah despite Biden’s plea

Strongest wording yet in call to Netanyahu

Smoke and explosion following an Israeli bombardment inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Smoke and explosion following an Israeli bombardment inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)


RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- A series of Israeli strikes early today hit Rafah, the city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the four-month Israel-Hamas war.

Israel has been signaling that its ground offensive in Gaza may soon target the densely populated city on the Egyptian border. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a "credible and executable" plan to protect civilians.

The strikes hit around Kuwait Hospital early this morning, an Associated Press journalist in Rafah said. Some of those wounded in the strikes had been brought to the hospital.

The Israeli military said it struck "terror targets in the area of Shaboura" -- which is a district in Rafah. The military statement said the series of strikes had concluded, without elaborating on the targets or assessing the potential damage or casualties.

Biden's remarks were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation. Biden, who last week called Israel's military response in Gaza "over the top," also sought "urgent and specific" steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel's Channel 13 television said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a "framework" is now "pretty much" in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a halt to fighting.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that "gaps remain," but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.

Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the call. Hamas' Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would "blow up" the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

TREATY THREATENED

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah, where Egypt fears fighting could push Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and force the closure of Gaza's main aid supply route.

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He asserted that Hamas has four battalions there.

More than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into tent camps and U.N.-run shelters. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Netanyahu told "Fox News Sunday" that there's "plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to" after Israel's offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with "flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things." But the offensive has caused widespread destruction, with little capacity to take in people.

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. Around 80% of residents have fled their homes, and the U.N. says a quarter of the population face starvation.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering food and medical supplies. Forty-four trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. About 500 entered daily before the war.

CIVILIAN DISPLACEMENT

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.

"An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X. Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime.

The White House, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire, has warned that a Rafah ground operation would be a "disaster" for civilians.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more and is "severely overcrowded."

RISING DEATH TOLL

Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis.

Gaza's Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll is 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.

The war began with Hamas' attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. More than 100 hostages were released during a cease-fire in November.

Hamas won't release more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. Netanyahu has ruled out both demands.

HOSTAGES RESCUED

The Israeli military said it rescued two hostages from captivity in the Gaza Strip early today, marking a small but symbolically significant success in its quest to bring home more than 100 captives believed to be held by the Hamas militant group.

The two men were rescued from a residential building in Rafah in a raid that also killed at least seven people, according to Palestinian officials.

The army identified the two rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, and said both were in good medical condition.

Information for this article was contributed by Josef Federman and Colleen Long of The Associated Press.

  photo  Smoke and explosion following an Israeli bombardment inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
 
 
  photo  Israeli soldiers drive a tank on the border with the Gaza Strip, as seen in southern Israel, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. The army is battling Palestinian militants across Gaza in the war ignited by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
 
 
  photo  People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas militants into the Gaza Strip during the Oct. 7th attack, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
 
 
  photo  A Palestinian morns a relative killed in the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
 
 
  photo  A demonstrator holds up a Palestinian flag during a protest to demand a ceasefire and support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, near the headquarters of U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
 
 
  photo  A demonstrator takes photos with her mobile phone covered with a picture of Abu Obeida, the spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, the Hamas' military wing, during a protest to demand a ceasefire and support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, near the headquarters of U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. The Arabic words read: " Al-Aqsa flood." (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
 
 
  photo  A worker of the Egyptian Food Bank, a non-profit organization specialized in fighting hunger through diversity and innovation, loads boxes of dates donated to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, at a warehouse in New Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
 
 
  photo  Palestinians wounded in an Israeli strike are brought to a hospital in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
 
 
  photo  Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Gaza City, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hajjar)
 
 



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