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Israel defiant on Rafah assault even without US support

Washington unsuccessfully tried to pass a text mentioning an 'immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal'
Displaced Palestinian children wait inside their makeshift tents at a camp beside a street in Rafah on March 14 amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas militant group

Displaced Palestinian children wait inside their makeshift tents at a camp beside a street in Rafah on March 14 amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas militant group. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 23, 2024 05:19 AM GMT
Updated: March 23, 2024 05:26 AM GMT

Israel plans to send troops into Gaza's Rafah even without US support, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the US top diplomat on March 22, as Washington failed to pass a UN resolution on an "immediate" ceasefire.

Almost six months of Israeli bombardment since Hamas's Oct. 7 attack has brought Gaza to its knees with many thousands killed, infrastructure shattered and widespread warnings that its 2.4 million people are on the verge of famine.

Washington has repeatedly blocked Gaza ceasefire resolutions at the UN Security Council but tried to pass a text mentioning an "immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal."

Many countries backed the renewed diplomatic push to pause the war, but China and Russia vetoed the US text, which Arab governments complained was too weak and put no pressure on Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on a whistle-stop tour of the region to support truce talks in Qatar that involve indirect negotiations between Israeli and Hamas representatives.

The violence meanwhile continued, with Israeli forces raiding Gaza's largest hospital complex for a fifth day, claiming to have killed more than 150 "terrorists" in the ongoing operation Hamas has labeled "criminal."

Israel also continued to pound the southern city of Rafah and its surroundings, where most of Gaza's population has taken shelter.

Standing in the ruins of a partly destroyed house in Rafah, resident Nabil Abu Thabet said "innocent civilians" had been pulled out "in pieces."

"People were targeted at 1:00 am when they were asleep," he told AFP.

Netanyahu said he had told Blinken on March 22 that there was "no way to defeat Hamas" without troops entering Rafah, a plan that has provoked international concern for the 1.5 million civilians trapped in the city.

"I told him I hope to do that with the support of the United States, but if we need to, we will do it alone," Netanyahu said.

Deal 'still possible'

At the UN Security Council, Russia and China vetoed the US draft, but French President Emmanuel Macron later said diplomats would keep pushing for a consensus text.

Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said the US text would "ensure the impunity of Israel, whose crimes are not even assessed in the draft".

Blinken accused China and Russia of "cynically" using their vetoes as permanent members of the council, while Hamas expressed its "appreciation".

Diplomats said a new text, in which Arab governments had had a hand, might be put to the vote as early as March 23 but said Washington had indicated it might veto it.

While diplomats talked in New York, Israel's spy chief David Barnea headed to Qatar for truce negotiations with CIA chief William Burns and Qatari and Egyptian officials.

The mediators are aiming to secure the release of Israelis still held by Gaza militants in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody and the delivery of more relief supplies.

Blinken, on his sixth tour of the region since the war began, said that the "gaps are narrowing."

"It's difficult to get there, but I believe it is still possible," he said in Cairo.

As the US top diplomat was in Israel for his talks with Netanyahu on March 22, the hard-right government announced it was confiscating 800 hectares (1,980 acres) of land in the occupied West Bank in a move settlement watchdog Peace Now described as "provocation".

Successive Israeli governments have sharply accelerated the expansion of settlements across the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem which are regarded as illegal under international law and one of the major obstacles to Middle East peace.

Peace Now said the land seizure announced on March 22 was the biggest since the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

"You know our views on settlement expansion," Blinken said. "Anyone taking steps that make things more difficult, more challenging with time is something we have a problem with."

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