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Gaza truce talks end inconclusively as Rafah braces for Israeli assault

4 min

Talks involving the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Qatar on a Gaza truce ended without a breakthrough on Tuesday as calls grew for Israel to hold back on a planned assault on the southern end of the enclave, crammed with over a million displaced people.

Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, Reuters/Mohammed Salem

Talks involving the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Qatar on a Gaza truce ended without a breakthrough on Tuesday as calls grew for Israel to hold back on a planned assault on the southern end of the enclave, crammed with over a million displaced people.

The city of Rafah, whose pre-war population was about 300,000, teems with homeless people living in tent camps and makeshift shelters who fled there from Israeli bombardments in areas of Gaza farther north during more than four months of war.

Israel says it wants to flush out Hamas militants from hideouts in Rafah and free Israeli hostages being held there. Its military is making plans to evacuate Palestinian civilians. But no plan has been forthcoming and aid agencies say the displaced have nowhere else to go in the shattered territory.

With Palestinians in Rafah "staring death in the face," United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said an Israeli ground invasion there would make humanitarian relief nearly impossible.

"Military operations in Rafah could lead to a slaughter in Gaza. They could also leave an already fragile humanitarian operation at death's door," Griffiths said in a statement.

Israeli tanks shelled the eastern sector of Rafah overnight, causing waves of panic, residents said.

They said displaced people - dozens so far - had begun to leave Rafah after Israeli shelling and air strikes in recent days.

"Last night in Rafah was very tough. We're going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear - displaced from one area to another," said Nahla Jarwan, referring to the coastal refugee camp from which she fled earlier in the conflict. "Wherever we go, there is no safety."

Rafah neighbours Egypt, but Cairo has made clear it will not allow a refugee exodus over the border.

Gaza health officials announced 133 new Palestinian deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 28,473 killed and 68,146 wounded since Oct. 7, when 1,200 people were killed in a Hamas rampage across the border into Israel, triggering the war.

Many other people are believed to be buried under rubble of destroyed buildings across the densely populated Gaza Strip, much of which is in ruins. Supplies of food, water and other essentials are running out and diseases are spreading.

About half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are now squeezed into Rafah.

"Since Israel said they are invading Rafah soon..., we read our last prayers every night. Every night we say farewell to one another and to relatives outside Rafah," said Aya, 30, who is living in a tent with her mother, grandmother and five siblings.

INCONCLUSIVE TRUCE TALKS

In Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi conducted talks with CIA Director William Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani aimed at agreeing a Gaza truce, protecting civilians and delivering more aid into the enclave, Egypt's state information service said.

In a statement on its website, it cited a "keenness to continue consultation and coordination" on the key issues, indicating that no breakthrough was made.

The Egyptian statement made no mention of Israel. The Israeli delegation left Cairo for home, a Reuters reporter said. The Israeli prime minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israel has vowed to fight on, for many months if necessary, until it eradicates Hamas.

A Palestinian official said earlier the sides were seeking a formula acceptable to Hamas, which insists that Israel commit to ending its war and pulling its forces from Gaza.

A Hamas official said Hamas had told the participants it does not trust Israel not to renew the war if the Israeli hostages being held by Palestinian militants are released.

The hostages were seized in Hamas' raid into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Securing their return is a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government as well as wiping out Hamas, which governs the small coastal territory.

'PRETTY MUCH UNLIVABLE'

South Africa asked the World Court on Tuesday to consider whether Israel's plan to extend its offensive into Rafah required additional emergency measures to safeguard the rights of Palestinians.

In a case brought by South Africa, the International Court of Justice last month ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent its troops committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel denies it is committing genocide and had asked the court to reject the case outright.

Pretoria's government voiced concern that an offensive would result in further large-scale killing, harm and destruction.

Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, said it had not been informed of any Israeli evacuation plan for Rafah and was not part of it.

"Where are you going to evacuate people to, as no place is safe across the Gaza Strip, the north is shattered, riddled with unexploded weapons, it's pretty much unlivable," she said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that Washington was working on a hostage deal to bring "immediate and sustained" calm to Gaza for at least six weeks.

Biden has urged Israel to refrain from a Rafah offensive without a viable plan to protect civilians.

In the latest bloodshed, Israel's military said its forces had killed dozens of Palestinian fighters in clashes in southern and central Gaza over the last 24 hours.

Gaza health officials said an Israeli strike on a house in Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed 16 Palestinians overnight. They said another air strike on a car in Gaza City later on Tuesday killed six people including children.

Israeli sniper fire killed three Palestinians and injured 10 others on Tuesday at the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, the Palestinian health ministry said in a statement.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Emma Farge in Geneva

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