Israel is facing mounting regional and international pressure over its planned ground offensive in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza.
Over the past few days, regional countries have warned Israel against a humanitarian meltdown in Rafah if Israeli forces insist on carrying out the ground assault in the city, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are now living, including 1.3 million people who fled from other parts of the coastal enclave.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday he has directed the military to prepare to evacuate civilians from the overcrowded city ahead of an expanded offensive against Hamas.
Netanyahu's remarks sparked great alarm among regional countries that the plan would further worsen the humanitarian situation already deteriorated since the Israel-Hamas conflict started on October 7 in the besieged enclave.
Qatar, which was engaging in diplomatic efforts along with the United States and Egypt to push for a ceasefire in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, "condemns in the strongest terms the Israeli threats to storm the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip."
It "warns of a humanitarian catastrophe in the city that has become a last refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced people," said its Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement on Saturday.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both having signed peace treaties with Israel in 2020, also expressed deep concern.
Saudi Arabia warned of "very serious repercussions" of storming and targeting Rafah, "the last resort" for hundreds of thousands of civilians who had fled from intensive Israeli strikes on cities northward.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry affirmed the country's rejection of forced displacement of Palestinians, warning against what he called Israel's "systematic policy" to force Palestinians out of their land.
Jordan voiced its categorical rejection of the displacement of Palestinians inside or outside their land, stressing the need to end the conflict and protect civilians.
Meanwhile, Secretary-General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul-Gheit warned that Israel's intentions to impose the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are "serious threats to regional stability."
On Sunday, in an apparent move to ease external concerns, Netanyahu said in a televised interview with ABC News that a "detailed plan" was being worked out on "providing safe passage for the civilian population, so they can leave" the Rafah city.
But Hamas warned against any Israeli ground operation in the southernmost Gazan city of Rafah, saying that it would "blow up" the hostage exchange negotiations, the Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV quoted an unnamed senior Hamas leader as saying.
On the same day, U.S. President Joe Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed unless a plan for "ensuring the safety" of the population was laid out first.
Biden reaffirmed the "shared goal to see Hamas defeated." He also called for urgent steps to increase the humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.
Despite not yet launching a ground offensive into Rafah, Israel has pounded the city with airstrikes that are part of its massive bombardment on Gaza. On Monday, the Israeli military said it conducted "a series of strikes" on southern Gaza that have now "concluded."
The death toll of Palestinians from Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip has risen to 28,176 since October 7, 2023, with 67,784 others being injured, the health ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
(With input from Xinhua, Reuters)
(Cover: Palestinians inspect damaged apartment buildings after Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza, February 11, 2024. /CFP)