Officials from the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Qatar met in Cairo on Tuesday in another bid to agree to a Gaza truce as calls grew for Israel to hold back on a planned assault on the enclave’s southernmost city, crammed with over a million displaced people.
Rafah, whose pre-war population was about 300,000, is heaving with people living in tent camps and makeshift shelters who fled there from Israeli bombardments in areas of Gaza further 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, and is making plans to evacuate trapped Palestinian civilians.
But no plan has been forthcoming and aid agencies say the displaced have nowhere else to go in the shattered territory.
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 airstrikes in recent days.
“I fled Al-Maghazi, came to Rafah, and here I am, returning to Al-Maghazi,” said Nahla Jarwan, referring to the coastal refugee camp from which she fled earlier in the conflict.
“Last night in Rafah was very tough. We’re going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear — displaced from one area to another.”
About half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now squeezed into Rafah.
“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.
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.
The Current9:07Palestinian in Rafah says last semblance of safety is gone
CIA chief in Cairo for ceasefire talks
In Cairo, renewed efforts were underway to secure a truce in a war whose impact has rippled across the Middle East. Egypt’s state-linked Al Qahera News said talks had begun involving U.S., Qatari, Egyptian and Israeli officials.
CIA Chief William Burns and David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, attended the Cairo talks. Both men played a key role in brokering the previous ceasefire.
Israel has proposed a two-month ceasefire in which hostages would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, while top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries. Hamas rejected those terms.
Hamas laid out a three-phase plan of 45 days each in which the hostages would be released in stages, Israel would free hundreds of imprisoned Palestinians — including senior militants — and the war would wind down, with Israel withdrawing its troops. That was viewed as a non-starter for Israel, which wants to topple Hamas before ending the war.
The hostages were seized in the Hamas-led raid into southern Israel on Oct. 7. Some 130 are thought to remain in captivity, according to Israeli officials. Securing their return is a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, along with wiping out Hamas, which governs the small coastal territory.
A senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, blamed Israel for the lack of progress in peace efforts so far. There has been one truce to date, lasting a week at the end of November.
There was no comment from Israel on the status of the talks. It says it tries to minimize civilian deaths and that Hamas fighters hide among civilians, something the group denies.
‘Pretty much unlivable’
U.S. President Joe Biden has supported Israel since Oct. 7 but in the past week has urged them to refrain from a Rafah offensive without a viable plan to protect civilians.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has some members of his party expressing alarm.
“Kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said in the chamber on Monday. “In addition to the horror of that news, one other thing is true: That is a war crime.”
Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, 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.
The UN humanitarian office also said it would not participate in any forced evacuation.
Rafah neighbours Egypt, but Cairo has made clear it will not allow a refugee exodus over the border.
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 Nuseirat 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.
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, the day when some 1,200 people were killed, including several Canadians, in a Hamas-led attack across the border into Israel.