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Israeli PM says civilians can leave Rafah before invasion

His comments follow international fears over the fate of the roughly 1.5 million people sheltering in Rafah
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their meeting in Jerusalem on March 17.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their meeting in Jerusalem on March 17. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 18, 2024 04:48 AM GMT
Updated: March 18, 2024 04:58 AM GMT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that civilians crammed into the southern Gaza Strip would be able to leave before troops enter in pursuit of Hamas militants.

His comments, alongside visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on March 17, follow international fears over the fate of the roughly 1.5 million people sheltering in Rafah, most of them displaced by Gaza's war.

The office of Netanyahu, whose security and war cabinets were to discuss the latest international efforts towards a truce deal, had on March 15 said he approved the military's plan for an operation in Rafah as well as "the evacuation of the population."

"Our goal in eliminating the remaining terrorist battalions in Rafah goes hand-in-hand with enabling the civilian population to leave Rafah," Netanyahu said at a press appearance with Scholz.

"It's not something that we will do while keeping the population locked in place."

As others have done, Scholz raised the question: "Where should they go?"

The United States -- which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military assistance -- has said it wants a "clear and implementable plan" to ensure civilians are "out of harm's way."

'In the name of humanity' 

Before meeting Scholz, Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting that "no amount of international pressure will stop us from realizing all the goals of the war," and that to do this, "we will also operate in Rafah."

Israel has repeatedly threatened a ground offensive against Hamas in Rafah, where people shelter in tents crammed up against the Egyptian border.

UN World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged against a military operation there, "in the name of humanity."

Scholz told German reporters that if such an offensive resulted in "a large number of casualties" it "would make any peaceful development in the region very difficult."

The war, more than five months old, has already raised tensions throughout the Middle East.

Netanyahu leads a coalition of religious and ultra-nationalist parties. His failure to bring home the hostages taken by Hamas militants during their attack which started the war has led to mounting protests within his country as well as domestic calls for early elections.

Hamas's unprecedented attack from Gaza on October 7 resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel's government on March 17 unanimously decided to establish a national remembrance day to honor soldiers and civilians killed in the "disaster."

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment and ground offensive which has killed at least 31,645 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory.

International envoys planned to meet in Qatar soon to revive stalled talks for a ceasefire and hostage release deal.

Palestinian militants seized about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages during the October 7 attack, but dozens were released during a week-long truce in November.

Israel believes about 130 remain in Gaza including 33, eight soldiers and 25 civilians, presumed dead.

A Hamas proposal calls for an Israeli withdrawal from "all cities and populated areas" in Gaza during a six-week truce and for more humanitarian aid, according to an official from the group.

'Security responsibility' 

Israel plans to attend the talks, with cabinet members due to "decide on the mandate" of their delegation before its departure, at an unspecified date, Netanyahu's office said.

In Jerusalem, Scholz called for "a hostage deal with a longer-lasting ceasefire," and appealed for a "negotiated two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Terror cannot be defeated with military means alone," Scholz said.

Netanyahu has drawn condemnation from the United Nations and defied the United States by rejecting calls for a Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister said on March 17 that he would not accept a peace deal that weakens Israel and leaves it unable to defend itself against hostile neighbors.

Netanyahu also reiterated his position that "Israel has to have the necessary security responsibility" in Gaza.

At least 92 people were killed over the previous 24 hours, the health ministry said on March 17.

The dead included 12 members of the same family whose house was hit in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza.

'She's dead' 

Palestinian girl Leen Thabit, retrieving a white dress from under the rubble of their flattened house, cried as she told AFP her cousin was killed in the strike.

"She's dead. Only her dress is left," Thabit said.

Shelling and clashes were reported in south Gaza's main city of Khan Yunis as well as elsewhere, and the Israeli army said its forces had killed around 18 militants in central Gaza since March 16.

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine for the coastal territory's 2.4 million people, and humanitarians have cited Israeli restrictions as among the obstacles they face in reaching the needy.

Israel has blamed shortages on the Palestinian side, specifically a lack of capacity to distribute aid once it gets in.

The UN has reported particular difficulty accessing northern Gaza, where a dense crowd of hundreds waited for aid to be given out in Gaza City on March 17.

Facing difficulty on the ground, donors have turned to the air and sea.

A second vessel was due to depart from Cyprus along a new maritime corridor to bring food and relief goods, officials of the Mediterranean nation said.

Jordan on March 17 announced the latest aid airdrop over northern Gaza together with aircraft from the United States, Egypt and Germany -- which said on March 16 it had parachuted aid into Gaza for the first time.

In Rafah, the situation has only grown worse, said medical staff at a clinic run by Palestinian volunteers.

Samar Gregea, a physician herself uprooted from Gaza City, said medicine is in short supply, and "all children" are suffering from malnutrition, with a spike in hepatitis A cases.

"Children require foods high in sugars, like dates, which are currently unavailable," Gregea said.

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