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Israel seizes Rafah crossing, ‘significant step’ for crushing Hamas: Live updates

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Israel’s military said it took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Tuesday as leaders vowed to push ahead with a plan to target Hamas in the enclave’s southernmost city and as new cease-fire talks resumed in Cairo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the military advancement a “very significant step toward destruction of remaining military capabilities of Hamas.” The militant group said in a statement that Israel’s incursion sought to undermine cease-fire talks and called on the U.S. and the international community to pressure Israel to halt the “escalation.”

In a briefing, the Israel military said its troops established “operational control” of the Rafah border crossing “following intelligence it was being used for terrorist purposes.” The Rafah crossing is a crucial gateway for humanitarian aid between Gaza and Egypt.

It was not immediately clear whether the presence of Israeli tanks and soldiers at the crossing had halted the flow of aid. The Israeli government issued a statement saying aid was still flowing and blaming Gaza hunger issues on Hamas, but the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said it was denied access to the crossing.

After warning Palestinians to evacuate eastern parts of Rafah on Monday, Israel carried out strikes on the city as it appeared to ramp up its preparations for a long-awaited military offensive in the area, where more than a million Palestinians have been sheltering.

A diplomatic push to reach a new Israel-Hamas cease-fire seven months into the war is in flux. Israel sent a second-tier delegation to Cairo after Hamas leaders on Monday said they would accept a recent proposal for a deal. Israel said the proposal failed to meet its basic requirements.

Escape from Gaza: Palestinians are paying tens of thousands of dollars to flee the enclave

Developments:

∎ German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock joined the chorus of international voices warning that a major offensive in Rafah would leave residents of the crowded city no place to go. “A million people cannot disappear into thin air. … They urgently need continued humanitarian assistance.”

∎ Social media video from the scene in Rafah appears to show a tank crushing a permanent “I love Gaza” sign.

∎ The Hamas cease-fire proposal took Israel by “complete surprise,” an Israeli source told The Times of Israel. Israeli officials are still exploring the nuances of the offer, the source said.

∎ Egypt warned that Israel’s operation in Rafah threatened cease-fire efforts.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the White House believes Israeli and Hamas negotiators were in position to “close the gap” between their positions on a cease-fire and hostage release.

CIA Director Williams Burns is in Cairo representing the U.S. at negotiations involving Qatar, Egypt and Israel. Qatar, a regional diplomatic lynchpin, is acting as intermediary for Hamas.

Jean-Pierre said Israel will open the Karem Abu Salem border crossing between Gaza and Israel on Wednesday to facilitate aid shipments after Israeli forces took control of the Rafah crossing ahead of a planned assault on parts of Rafah city.

The Karem Abu Salem crossing is around five and a half miles south of Rafah, where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet.

“Israel must immediately halt plans for this ground invasion,” Avril Benoît, executive director of aid group MSF USA said in a statement. “A further military escalation in Rafah would be a direct attack on a trapped population. It would crush an already fragile humanitarian response at a time when health and humanitarian needs are soaring.

−Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy

Watch: Evacuations begin in Rafah ahead of ‘limited’ Israeli operation

President Joe Biden warned that past atrocities committed against the Jewish people should not be forgotten, condemned the rise in antisemitism across the nation and renewed his commitment to the security of Israel at a Holocaust memorial ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

“Now, here we are, not 75 years later, but just seven and a half months later, people are already forgetting. They’re already forgetting and Hamas unleashed this terror,” he said. “It was Hamas that attacked the Israelis. It was Hamas who took and continues the whole hostages. I have not forgotten, nor have you and we will not forget.”

He said too many people were forgetting that Hamas started the Gaza war, killing almost 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages from Israel on Oct. 7. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the resulting Israeli offensive. Biden, while expressing support for freedom of speech, said there was no room for campus protests that include antisemitism, hate speech, violence or destruction of property: “It’s against the law. And we are not a lawless country.”

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy

John Kirby, the White House’s national security communications adviser, said Tuesday that the Israelis have told the U.S. the operation in Rafah was “limited” and designed to cut off the ability to smuggle weapons and militant funds into Gaza. The Biden administration, and most of the world, in recent weeks repeatedly urged Israel not to pursue a ground offensive in Rafah.

“Our views on Rafah remain the same,” Kirby said at press briefing. He also confirmed hostage/cease-fire talks have reconvened in Cairo. CIA Director Bill Burns is in Cairo, and Hamas and Israel also have sent representatives. Kirby said he believes the gaps that have kept the two sides from making a deal can be bridged.

Francesca Chambers

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to Israel and Hamas to spare no effort to make a truce and warned Israel that a full assault on Rafah would “be a strategic mistake, a political calamity and a humanitarian nightmare.” Guterres, in a social media post, said he was “disturbed and distressed” by Israel’s latest military activity.

“I reiterate my appeal for Israel and Hamas to show politcial courage and spare no effort to secure an agreement now,” Guterres wrote. “To stop the bloodshed. To free the hostages. To help stabilize the region. This is a critical opportunity we cannot afford to miss.”

Hamas called on the US administration and the rest of the world to put pressure on Israel to “stop this escalation that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians” across Rafah and the entire Gaza Strip. The Israeli advance confirms the intention to disrupt cease-fire talks and the release of prisoners for the “personal interests” of Netanyahu and his extremist government, the Hamas statement says.

“The storming of the occupation army to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt at dawn today is a dangerous escalation against a civilian facility protected by international law,” the Hamas statement says, adding that closing the border crossing “aims to exacerbate the humanitarian situation in the Strip by… preventing the flow of emergency relief aid through it to our besieged people.”

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said aid agencies in Gaza have only one day of fuel on hand. If no fuel comes in, “it would be a very effective way of putting the humanitarian operation in its grave,” he told the Times of Israel.

“The two main arteries for getting aid into Gaza are currently choked off,” he said, referring to the Rafah crossing from Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel. The World Health Organization said Israel is also not allowing patient transfers through Rafah.

Maps and graphics: As war wages on in Gaza, these visuals show the impact of the Hamas-Israel conflict

Netanyahu is facing intensifying pressure to accept an Egyptian-Qatari cease-fire proposal and avert a full Rafah ground invasion by Israel’s military.

Aid groups and Israel’s international partners say a dire humanitarian situation for Gaza’s civilians would be further exacerbated by any such invasion and that there is no credible plan to protect them.

The families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas are demanding their loved ones are given priority.

“At this crucial moment, while a tangible opportunity for the release of the hostages is on the table, it is of the utmost importance that your government manifest its strong support for such an agreement,” said the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a group that represents hostage families, in a statement Tuesday.

And Netanyahu is also attempting to appease far-right nationalist partners in his ruling coalition who have appeared to signal they would withdraw support for his government if the Rafah invasion, aimed at rooting out what Israel has characterized as Hamas’ last stronghold in Gaza, does not happen.

Contributing: Reuters

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