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Israeli destruction to make Gaza 'buffer zone' a 'war crime' — UN

By AFP - Feb 09,2024 - Last updated at Feb 09,2024

A child peeks out of a tent sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday, amid the ongoing Israeli offensive (AFP photo)

Geneva — Israel's reported ongoing destruction of all buildings along the border inside Gaza with the aim of creating a "buffer zone" is a war crime, the UN rights chief warned on Thursday.

Israel's "extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime", Volker Turk said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to prepare to enter Gaza's crowded southern city of Rafah, even as new talks aimed at securing a truce with Hamas were set to open Thursday in Cairo.

Netanyahu announced the order after rejecting Hamas's response to a ceasefire proposal at the centre of recent intensive diplomatic efforts, dismissing what he called the militant group's "bizarre demands".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Israel as part of his fifth Middle East crisis tour since the October 7 surprise attack, insisted he still saw "space for agreement to be reached" to halt the fighting and bring home hostages.

Heavy fighting raged on unabated, with more air strikes hitting Hamas-ruled Gaza, now in its fifth month of war, where the health ministry said another 109 people were killed overnight.

Alarm has mounted especially for the more than one million Palestinians crowded into Gaza's far south as the battlefront has crept ever closer to the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned on Wednesday that an Israeli military push into the city "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare".

Netanyahu, in televised remarks Wednesday, said he had ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in Rafah and predicted that coming months would bring "total victory".

Regarding the ceasefire proposal, he added: “Giving in to the bizarre demands of Hamas that we have just heard will... only invite another massacre.”

Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas’s counter-proposal had at least offered an opportunity “to pursue negotiations”.

“While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” Blinken said, hours after meeting Netanyahu.

He later met with moderates in Netanyahu’s war Cabinet, including Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, for talks on “the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families”, and also held talks with Israel’s main opposition leader Yair Lapid.


Cairo talks 


A new round of negotiations was set to open Thursday in Cairo, aimed at achieving “calm” in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

Egypt was urging “both parties to show the necessary flexibility” to make a deal, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hamas said a delegation led by Khalil Al Hayya, a leading member of the group’s political bureau, was travelling to Cairo on Thursday.

The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented surprise attack on Israel on October 7. Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Hamas fighters seized around 250 hostages on October 7. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

The fate of the hostages has gripped Israeli society, and while Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted military pressure is the only way to bring them home, he has faced mounting calls to strike a deal.

Addressing the prime minister, one of the hostages released as part of a temporary truce in November, Adina Moshe, told a press conference in Tel Aviv: “Everything is in your hands.”

“And I’m very afraid and very concerned that if you continue with this line of destroying Hamas, there won’t be any hostages left to release.”


 ‘Abysmal conditions’


As Israel prepared to press further south, fears have grown for the displaced Palestinian civilians thronging Rafah, pressed against Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.4 million people are estimated to have sought safety in the city, according to the United Nations.

“Their living conditions are abysmal,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said. “They lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death.

“As the war encroaches further into Rafah, I am extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of families which have endured the unthinkable in search of safety.”

Blinken stopped short of calling on Israel not to move on the city, but did voice concern. Any “military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost”, he said.

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