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Israeli forces take control of Gaza side of Rafah border as cease-fire hangs in balance

CAIRO (AP) — An Israeli tank brigade took control of the Gaza Strip side, Rafah border crossing with Egypt as Israel launched an offensive in the southern city, even if ceasefire negotiations with Hamas remain on a knife edge.

The development comes after hours of whiplash in the war between Israel and Hamas, with the militant group saying on Monday that it accepted a ceasefire proposal brokered by Egypt and Qatar. Israel, for its part, insisted the deal did not meet its key demands.

The high-stakes diplomatic moves and military brinkmanship left a glimmer of hope – if only barely – for a deal that could bring at least a pause in the negotiations. A 7 month war who has devastated the Gaza Strip.

The overnight Israeli incursion appears to fall short of the full-fledged offensive against Rafah that Israel has planned, and it was not immediately clear whether it would be expanded. President Joe Biden warned the Israeli Prime Minister on Monday of urgency Benjamin Netanyahu against the launch of an offensive on the southern Gaza city, increasing pressure for a ceasefire.

Aid groups say an attack would be catastrophic for the estimated 1.4 million Palestinians huddled in Rafah, most of whom fled the Israeli attack elsewhere in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s 401st Brigade entered the Rafah crossing early Tuesday morning, the Israeli military said, taking “operational control” of the crucial border point. Images released by the Israeli army showed Israeli flags flying on tanks seizing the crossing zone. The details in the video matched the known characteristics of the crossing.

The army also carried out a series of strikes and shellings in Rafah overnight, killing at least 23 Palestinians, including at least six women and five children, according to hospital records seen by The Associated Press.

The Rafah crossing is the main route for delivering aid to the besieged enclave and to the exit of those who may flee to Egypt. Rafah and the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, the other main aid entry point, have been closed for at least two days. Even though smaller entry points still operate, the closure is a major blow to efforts to maintain the flow of food, medicine and other supplies that keep Gaza’s population alive.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian affairs office, warned that an attack on Rafah could shatter the fragile aid operation. He said all fuel entering Gaza passes through Rafah and any disruption would halt humanitarian work.

“This will plunge this crisis into unprecedented levels of need, including the very real possibility of famine,” he said.

The Israeli army claimed to have seized the crossing after receiving information that it was being “used for terrorist purposes”. The army did not immediately provide evidence to support the claim, although it said the area around the crossing was used on Sunday to launch a mortar attack that killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded others near the Kerem Shalom terminal.

The army also said ground troops and airstrikes targeted suspected Hamas positions in Rafah.

Wael Abu Omar, spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority, acknowledged that Israeli forces had seized the crossing and closed the facilities for the time being. He said strikes had targeted the area around him since Monday.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson declined to immediately comment on the Israeli seizure.

Egypt has already warned that any capture of Rafah – which is supposed to be part of a demilitarized border zone – or any attack that forces Palestinians to flee across the Egyptian border would be threaten the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, it is a pillar of regional security.

Israel’s plans to attack Rafah have also raised fears of a dramatic rise in civilian deaths in a campaign of bombings and offensives that has killed more than 34,700 Palestinians over the past seven months, according to security officials. health of Gaza. The assault razed large swathes of the territory, and Northern Gaza enters ‘total famine’ World Food Program Director Cindy McCain said on Sunday.

Operation Rafah also deepened the rift between Netanyahu and Biden over the conduct of the war. Netanyahu said attacking Rafah – which Israel says is the last major Hamas stronghold in the territory – is crucial to the war goal of destroying Hamas after its October 7 attack on southern Israel.

In this unprecedented Hamas raid, militants killed some 1,200 people and took about 250 others hostage back to Gaza. Israeli critics say Netanyahu is concerned about his government’s survival because his coalition’s more radical partners could flee if he signs a deal preventing an attack on Rafah.

During their call Monday, Biden told Netanyahu that a ceasefire agreement was the best way to secure the return of the hostages still held by Hamas, believed to number around 100, as well as bodies of around thirty others.

While Israel announced it would continue its operations in Rafah, it said Monday that the ceasefire proposal accepted by Hamas did not meet its “fundamental demands.” But he announced that he would send a delegation to Egypt to continue negotiations.

An Egyptian official and a Western diplomat said the draft accepted by Hamas included only minor changes in wording compared to a version suggested earlier by the United States and approved by Israel. The changes were made in consultation with CIA chief William Burns, who approved the draft before sending it to the Palestinian group, the diplomat and official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations internal.

The White House said Burns was discussing Hamas’ response with Israelis and other regional officials.

According to a copy released by Hamas after its acceptance, the proposal provides for a gradual release of the hostages alongside the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the entire enclave and ending with a “lasting calm”, defined as a “permanent cessation military and hostile operations. operations. »

During the first stage of the 42-day ceasefire, Hamas would release 33 hostages – including women, children, the elderly and the sick – in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, and Israeli forces would partially withdraw. from parts of Gaza. The parties would then negotiate terms for the next stage, during which remaining civilians and soldiers would be released, while Israeli forces would withdraw from the rest of Gaza.

Hamas demanded an end to the war and Israel’s complete withdrawal in exchange for the release of all hostages. Publicly, Israeli leaders have repeatedly rejected this compromise, promising to continue their campaign until Hamas is destroyed.


Lidman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press journalist Ashraf Sweilam in El-Arish, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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