Israel strikes Gaza's Rafah as truce talks under way

Another 97 people were killed over the past 24 hours in Gaza, the health ministry said, as a US envoy was in Israel for fresh efforts to secure a truce


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Photo: AFP file
Photo: AFP file

Published: Thu 22 Feb 2024, 11:01 PM

Last updated: Thu 22 Feb 2024, 11:05 PM

Israel launched deadly air strikes on Rafah on Thursday, after threatening to send troops in to hunt for Hamas militants in the southern Gaza city where around 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge.

Another 97 people were killed over the past 24 hours in Gaza, the health ministry said, as a US envoy was in Israel for fresh efforts to secure a truce.

International concern has spiralled over the territory's escalating civilian death toll and the desperate humanitarian crisis sparked by the war.

Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, held talks with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after meeting with other mediators in Cairo.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was in the Egyptian capital for truce talks earlier this week, the group said.

Mediators including the United States, Qatar and Egypt have tried and so far failed to broker a ceasefire and hostage release deal, but this week have been making a new push to break the deadlock.

The Israeli defence ministry said the discussion with McGurk covered returning hostages, "operational developments in Hamas strongholds in central and southern Gaza, and humanitarian aid efforts".

Gallant stressed the "importance of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions", the ministry said.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz sounded an optimistic note ahead of McGurk's arrival, saying efforts to "promote a new plan for the return of the hostages" were showing "the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress".

More than four months of relentless fighting and bombardment have flattened much of Gaza and pushed its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The war has also triggered mounting violence in the occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on cars in a traffic jam on Thursday, killing one person and wounding eight, including a pregnant woman.

The attackers were shot dead at the scene, near a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem.

Israeli far-right politicians quickly called for more citizens to carry weapons and for even greater restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Hamas urged an escalation in attacks.

Concern 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 hostages held in Gaza by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will keep fighting during the Muslim holy month, including in Rafah.

Israel has already been bombing the city, which was again hit overnight.

"I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion like an earthquake -- fire, smoke, blasts and dust everywhere," said Rami al-Shaer, 21, who told AFP 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.

The war started after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will fight on until it has destroyed Hamas -- but his failure so far to bring home all the captives has led to mounting protests and calls for an early election.

Gantz said Israel's operation in Rafah would begin "after the evacuation of the population", although Gazans have said nowhere in the territory is safe.

With Arab support, the United States has called for a pathway to a Palestinian state -- something Israel's parliament has overwhelmingly rejected.

The UN's humanitarian agency said aid to Gaza was being gravely hampered by "intense hostilities, limitations on the entry and delivery of aid, and growing insecurity".

The war has also decimated Gaza's economy, according to the World Bank, which said Thursday that GDP plummeted more than 80 percent in the last three months of 2023.

"Almost all economic activity in Gaza has ground to a halt," it said.

In the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said an Israeli tank had fired on a house sheltering their employees and families, killing two relatives of MSF staff.

MSF condemned the strike in the "strongest possible terms".

The Israeli army said forces "fired at a building" identified as a place where "terror activity is occurring", adding that it "regrets" harm to civilians.

The military said troops killed more than 15 militants in Khan Yunis, which has seen weeks of fierce fighting.

Elsewhere in the region, the war has led to attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Red Sea shipping lanes vital for global trade. The Huthis say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians.

A missile attack caused a fire on board the British-owned cargo vessel MV Islander as it passed through the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, two maritime security agencies and the US military said.

At least two Hezbollah fighters were killed and three others wounded in an Israeli drone strike in south Lebanon, a security source said. The Iran-backed militant group has been exchanging near-daily fire with the Israeli army since the Israel-Hamas war started.


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