Ferocious bombardment heightens misery in ‘crammed’ Rafah


Israel launched deadly air strikes on Rafah on Thursday, after threatening to send troops in to hunt for Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza city where around 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge.
Major powers trying to find a way to resolve the crisis have so far failed, but a US envoy flew to Israel on Thursday in the latest attempt to secure a truce deal.
International concern has spiralled over Gaza’s escalating civilian death toll and the desperate humanitarian crisis. In the occupied West Bank, an Israeli official said, three Palestinians opened fire on cars in a traffic jam, killing one person and wounding eight.
The attackers were shot dead at the scene, near a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem, the official added.
Israeli far-right politicians promptly called for more citizens to carry weapons and for even greater restrictions on Palestinian West Bank residents, while Hamas urged an escalation in attacks.
More than four months of relentless bombardment by Israel has flattened much of Gaza and pushed its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.
Alarm has centred on Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are living in crowded shelters and makeshift camps where disease threatens.
Israel has warned that if Hamas does not free the remaining prisoners held in Gaza by the start of Ramazan on March 10 or 11, it will keep fighting during the holy month, including in Rafah.
‘Like an earthquake’
Israel has already been bombing the city, which was again hit overnight and saw multiple air strikes after sunrise.
“I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion like an earthquake _ fire, smoke, blasts and dust everywhere,” said Rami Al Shaer, 21. He and others pulled wounded family members from the rubble.
Gaza’s civil defence agency reported “a number” of people were killed, while elsewhere in Rafah residents walked amid the rubble of the city’s Al Faruq mosque, after strikes.
“At night, we were surprised by a call asking us to evacuate because the surrounding area was being targeted,” said Mohamad Abu Khosa, adding that the Israeli army had targeted the mosque with two missiles.
Another 97 people were killed across the Palestinian territory in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said.
Israeli minister Benny Gantz said the operation in Rafah would begin “after evacuation of the population”, although his government has not specified where civilians could go. Gazans say nowhere in the territory is safe.
Ceasefire talks
The United States, Qatar and Egypt, who have tried and so far failed to broker a ceasefire and prisoner release deal, are making a new push for an agreement.
Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, held talks with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, after meeting other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh earlier this week.
According to Benny Gantz, the Israeli minister, efforts were being made to “promote a new plan” for the return of prisoners, adding that “we are seeing the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress in this direction”.
Matthew Miller, the US State Department spokesman, said Washington hoped for an agreement that secures a temporary ceasefire which can get the prisoners out and get humanitarian assistance in.
Aid efforts
According to the UN humanitarian agency, aid to Gaza was being gravely hampered by the “intense hostilities, limitations on the entry and delivery of aid, and growing insecurity”.
Mohammad Al Oukshia, a volunteer with NGO World Central Kitchen in Rafah, said the group was trying to provide “nutritious meals to displaced people” and was hoping to expand to northern Gaza, where famine fears are most acute.
In the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said an Israeli tank had fired on a house sheltering its employees and their families.
Two relatives of MSF staff were killed and six others wounded, it said, condemning the strike in the “strongest possible terms”.