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The US has urged Israel not to expand its military attacks in Gaza to Rafah, warning that a major operation in the southern town where more than a million displaced people are sheltering would be a “disaster”.
Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, also said on Friday that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would be a “recipe for disaster” given that 1.4mn people had taken refuge there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israeli troops would “soon go into Rafah” as he pledged that Israel would achieve “total victory” in its war against Hamas within “months”. Israeli jets bombed the city overnight on Thursday.
However, US national security spokesman John Kirby said that the US would not support a military operation in the city “without any kind of due consideration” for the huge numbers of displaced Palestinians who have fled there after being forced from their homes elsewhere in the enclave.
“Any major military operation in Rafah at this time, under these circumstances, with more than a million — probably more like a million and a half Palestinians who are seeking refuge [there] — without due consideration for their safety would be a disaster,” he told journalists on Thursday.
Kirby’s comments came as US president Joe Biden issued his bluntest criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza since the start of the war, describing its offensive in the enclave as “over the top”.
“There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s got to stop,” Biden told reporters at the White House.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas militants stormed into Israel on October 7 in an attack during which they killed 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage, according to Israeli officials.
Israeli’s assault on Gaza has so far killed more than 27,500 people, according to Palestinian officials, as well as displacing around 1.7mn of the enclave’s 2.3mn population and rendering huge swaths uninhabitable.
Biden and other US officials have repeatedly criticised the soaring civilian death toll from Israel’s operations, though the US has continued to supply the Jewish state with munitions.
On Thursday, Biden issued a memorandum requiring recipients of military aid from the US to provide “credible and reliable written assurances” that they are complying with international law. The memorandum did not refer to any specific countries, but comes amid mounting calls in the US for the country to attach conditions to its support for Israel.
Netanyahu insisted on Wednesday that Israeli forces going to Rafah would be “providing the civilian population safe passage to safe zones”.
However, given the scale of devastation elsewhere in Gaza, and the huge numbers of people trapped in the enclave, aid organisations say that such pledges will be nigh-on impossible to fulfil.
“You have 1.4mn people, you have tens of kilometres of people living in the streets in plastic makeshifts . . . and you try and figure out a military offensive in the middle of these completely exposed, vulnerable people, it’s a recipe for disaster,” UNRWA’s Lazzarini told a press conference on Friday.
“I am almost becoming wordless, I don’t know how to describe this . . . How do you move hundreds of thousands of people because you want to go into the city? I don’t know. If you move them to the middle of nowhere, what facilities will they have?”