Israel remained under strong international pressure on Tuesday to renounce or at least postpone an offensive on Rafah, the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Israel on Monday released two of its hostages held by Hamas in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, during a nighttime commando operation accompanied by bombings which left around a hundred dead, according to the authorities of the Palestinian Islamist movement, in power in Gaza since 2007.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently ordered his army to prepare an offensive on Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are massed according to the UN, or more than half of the territory’s total population, most of whom have fled the war that has been raging for four months between Israel and Hamas.
He repeated on Monday his determination to continue “military pressure until complete victory” on the Palestinian Islamist movement, of which Rafah is the “last bastion”, to free “all our hostages”.
The United States, Israel’s main ally, insists it opposes a large-scale operation without a solution for civilians stuck on the closed border with Egypt in the territory’s far south.
American President Joe Biden demanded, from Israeli forces, a “credible” plan to spare the Palestinian population, before any offensive, during a meeting Monday at the White House with the King of Jordan Abdullah II .
The monarch, whose country is the second Arab state to have signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, went further.
“We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah”, where the humanitarian situation is already “unbearable”, said Abdullah II, who also called for “an immediate lasting ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip.
“The United States is working on an agreement to release the hostages between Israel and Hamas, which would immediately bring a period of calm of at least six weeks in Gaza,” said the American president, whose administration rejects always an unconditional and indefinite truce.
This period could lead to “something more lasting,” added Joe Biden.
128 days of captivity
The war was sparked on October 7 by an unprecedented attack by Hamas commandos infiltrated from Gaza into southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,160 people, mostly civilians killed that day, according to a AFP count based on official Israeli data.
In retaliation, Israel vowed to “destroy” the Islamist movement, which it considers a “terrorist” organization, as well as the United States and the European Union.
The Israeli offensive left 28,340 dead in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the Hamas government’s Health Ministry.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called the operation that led to the release of Fernando Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, two Israeli-Argentinians kidnapped on October 7 in the kibbutz, a “turning point” in the war. Nir Yitzhak, seeing it as proof that Hamas was “vulnerable”.
The condition of the two ex-hostages is stable, but after 128 days of captivity, they show “obvious signs” of “lack of medical care”, according to a spokesperson for the hospital near Tel Aviv where they were were admitted and reunited with their loved ones.
“We are happy today, but we did not win. This is just one more step toward bringing hostages held in Gaza home, said Idan Bejerano, Luis Har’s son-in-law, echoing families who are pressing the government to accept a new truce agreement. with Hamas.
According to Israel, 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, 29 of whom are believed to have died, out of around 250 people kidnapped on October 7. A week-long truce in November allowed the release of 105 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians detained by Israel.
Faced with international fears of a major military offensive, Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would provide “safe passage” for the population to leave Rafah, without specifying where they could go.
“They are going to evacuate” the Palestinians. ” Or ? On the moon ? », asked the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell in Brussels.
The UN will not be associated with “a forced population displacement” in Rafah, for its part warned the spokesperson for the secretary general of the organization.
The prospect of an offensive is “terrifying”, for his part alarmed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, while the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Karim Khan said he was “deeply concerned” about the fate of civilians.
Hamas warned on Sunday that an offensive on Rafah would “torpedo” any hostage deal, as talks on a new truce are led by Egypt and Qatar. CIA Director Richard Burns is expected in Cairo on Tuesday to continue discussions, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The US State Department has touted the “enormous” benefits of such an agreement, both in terms of hostage releases, but also access for humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Around 1.7 million people, according to the UN, out of a total of 2.4 million inhabitants, have fled their homes since October 7 in the Palestinian territory besieged by Israel and plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.
Rafah, which has become a gigantic encampment, is the main entry point for humanitarian aid, insufficient to meet the needs of the population who live, according to the World Food Program (WFP), in “conditions close to famine”.
Details of the Israeli commando operation
A deluge of fire to cover a lightning commando operation: Israeli forces released two hostages held in Rafah during the night from Sunday to Monday, the final target of its offensive in the Gaza Strip. Here is the film of the events.
1:49 a.m. : Israeli special forces use explosives to force entry into a building in the heart of Rafah, where Fernando Marman and Luis Har, kidnapped on October 7 during the Hamas attack, are detained on the second floor by Palestinian fighters , explained the spokesperson for the Israeli army, Daniel Hagari. This is the start of an “intense battle” guided and followed live by the heads of the army, the police and Shin Beth (domestic intelligence) from the headquarters of the latter, in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
1h50 : A flood of fire falls on Rafah, waking up the inhabitants. AFP journalists on site heard “dozens of strikes” and explosions in several parts of the city. These Israeli bombings aim to facilitate the commando intervention, in particular by hitting Hamas fighters in the surrounding area, according to the army. The commando “extracts Luis and Fernando from the apartment and evacuates them under fire” in Rafah “to a secure area”. There, they are quickly examined by doctors, before being airlifted to Sheba hospital in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, where they undergo medical examinations, adds the same source.
2:55 a.m. : Hamas reports 50 Israeli aerial bombardments which left at least 52 dead and dozens injured. According to witnesses and Palestinian security sources, six houses and two mosques were targeted.
Around 3 a.m. : Luis Har’s family receives a phone call from Israeli authorities. “They told us, ‘We have Fernando and Luis, come see them at the hospital,’” said Idan Bejerano, Luis Har’s son-in-law. “In shock”, the family jumped into a car and went to meet them at Sheba hospital, where the two men, bedridden, “seemed to be doing well”. At that time there was “a lot of crying, hugs, but few words”, according to Mr. Bejerano. “They hugged each other in silence”, it was “very moving”, hospital director Arnon Afek told AFP.
4:39 a.m. : Israeli forces announce the release of Fernando Marman and Luis Har during a military operation in Rafah, and their transfer to Sheba Hospital.
7:02 a.m. : Hamas condemns the Rafah attack which, according to it, left “nearly a hundred dead”.
10:12 a.m. : Benjamin Netanyahu salutes in a press release the “brave warriors” for the “bold operation” which led to their release.