- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2024

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Frantic U.S. and international efforts to prevent a full-scale Israeli assault on the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah appeared to be making little headway as Israel Defense Forces pressed forward and thousands more Palestinian civilians attempted to flee the besieged city.

Sunday brought fresh signs of fighting spreading beyond Rafah despite intense U.S.-backed regional efforts to forge at least a temporary cease-fire and pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restrain his forces.

The Biden administration has been warning of a humanitarian disaster if Israel moves on Rafah, where the last full Hamas fighting units are holed up in a city of more than 2 million.

In some of his strongest comments to date, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Sunday that a Rafah assault would kill many more civilians without dealing with the problem of Hamas or offering a post-conflict political and security settlement for governing Gaza.

The “trajectory” of the fighting right now “risks doing terrible harm to civilians and not solving the problem, a problem that both of us want to solve, which is making sure Hamas cannot again govern Gaza,” Mr. Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Israel’s on the trajectory potentially to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy and probably refilled by Hamas,” Mr. Blinken added.

The IDF stepped up efforts to urge Gaza residents to leave Rafah for a protected sanctuary along the enclave’s southern coast, even as Israeli tank shells reportedly were landing near the city.

A defiant Mr. Netanyahu has insisted the offensive will continue until Hamas is destroyed as a fighting force. Hamas militants killed 1,200 civilians and took hundreds of Israeli and foreign hostages on Oct. 7.

The failure to forge a cease-fire has strained U.S.-Israeli relations. President Biden on Friday confirmed he is blocking all new offensive weapons to Israel, saying there was evidence the Israeli campaign to avenge Oct. 7 has violated international law regarding the treatment of civilians in wartime.

Israel rejects those claims. Palestinian health officials, citing records that could not be independently confirmed, said Sunday the total number of Palestinian deaths in the 7-month-old war now tops 35,000, with another 78,755 injured. Civilians make up the vast number of casualties.

The partial arms embargo has dramatically illustrated the political peril for Mr. Biden in the crisis.

Liberal critics in his political base and students occupying university campuses across the country have criticized the move as too timid. Pro-Israel Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress accuse the president of undermining a vital ally in a moment of maximum peril.

Also appearing on “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said U.S. demands on Israel to limit potential civilian deaths were unreasonable given the state of fighting in Rafah.

“I think it’s impossible to mitigate civilian deaths in Gaza as long as Hamas uses their own population as human shields,” Mr. Graham said. “The last thing you want to do is reward this behavior.”

Saying Israel faced the same kind of existential threat the U.S. faced in World War II when it dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Mr. Graham added, “Give Israel the bombs they need to end the war. They can’t afford to lose.”

Mr. Blinken, in a separate appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said Mr. Biden has not, as some have charged, withheld precision munitions to Israel.

“What we’ve been clear about is that if Israel launches this major military operation into Rafah, then there are certain systems that we’re not going to be supporting and supplying for that operation,” he said.

“But at present, the only thing that we’ve delayed and are holding back are these high-payload bombs because we’re in an ongoing conversation with Israel, given the impact that those weapons can have when they’re used in densely populated areas, including an area like Rafah,” the secretary of state said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official said Sunday that Israeli orders for an evacuation of Palestinian civilians trapped in Rafah are impractical and unlikely to avoid “further atrocity crimes.”

“These exhausted, famished people, many of whom have been displaced many times already, have no good options,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement.

“I can see no way that the latest evacuation orders, much less a full assault, in an area with an extremely dense presence of civilians, can be reconciled with the binding requirements of international humanitarian law and with the two sets of binding provisional measures ordered by the international court of justice,” Mr. Turk added.

Israel has evacuated the eastern third of Rafah, said IDF Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari. U.N. officials say some 300,000 Rafah residents have managed to flee the city since fighting began.

The New York Times reported Sunday that one key rationale justifying the Israeli push into Rafah may no longer hold.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence analysts now believe that Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar — whom the Netanyahu government has vowed to hunt down for his role in masterminding the Oct. 7 assault — is not holed up in Rafah, as previously thought, but may still be operating from the tunnel network near the Gaza city of Khan Younis, a focus of intense fighting earlier in the conflict.

Even as Israeli forces massed near Rafah, there were reports that the Israel Defense Forces were engaged in fierce new battles with Hamas in other parts of the Gaza Strip. These areas were supposedly cleared in the early days of the fighting.

Palestinians reported heavy Israeli bombardment overnight in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp and other areas in the northern Gaza Strip, The Associated Press reported Sunday. Other northern Gaza targets were hit as well. Hamas said it fired back at Israeli positions.

“We identified in the past weeks attempts by Hamas to rehabilitate its military capabilities in Jabaliya,” Adm. Hagari told reporters. “We are operating there to eliminate those attempts.”

He said that IDF forces were also operating in Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, two towns near Gaza’s northern border with Israel that were heavily bombed in the opening days of the war.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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