Gaza Crisis: Israeli PM Vows 'Safe Passage' For Civilians as Threat of Incursion into Rafah Persists

The threat of an Israeli incursion into Gaza's southernmost town of Rafah persisted on Sunday, despite international alarm over the potential for carnage in a place crammed with more than half of the Gaza Strip's 2.4 million people. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised "safe passage" to civilians displaced there but did not clarify where they could go. In an interview airing Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated his intention to extend Israel's military operation against Hamas into Rafah.

Netanyahu's announcement set off a chorus of concern from world leaders and aid groups. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on social media platform X, adding that an Israeli offensive on Rafah would be a "humanitarian catastrophe in the making." Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry warned Saturday of "very serious repercussions of storming and targeting" Rafah and called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting.

In unusually sharp criticism, US President Joe Biden on Thursday called Israel's retaliatory campaign "over the top." Gaza's Hamas rulers warned on Saturday that a full-scale Israeli invasion of Rafah could cause "tens of thousands" of casualties. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's office said the move "threatens security and peace in the region and the world" and is "a blatant violation of all red lines."

On Sunday, the Israeli military claimed that its troops uncovered a Hamas tunnel under the evacuated headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for its head, Philippe Lazzarini, to quit. Lazzarini said the agency had not operated from the compound since Oct 12 when Israeli forces instructed staff to evacuate.

Hamas has repeatedly denied Israeli accusations that it has dug a network of tunnels under schools, hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure as cover for its activities. The war, now in its fifth month, has spawned intensifying public fury in Israel. Protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demand the release of the hostages, Netanyahu step down, and fresh elections be called. "It's clear Netanyahu is dragging out the war; he has no idea what to do on the day after," Israeli protester Gil Gordon said.

The war has had far-reaching impact well beyond Israel and Gaza, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas surging across the Middle East. A senior Hamas officer survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Lebanon, Palestinian and Lebanese security sources told AFP. Two other people, including a Hezbollah member, were killed in the attack. In Syria, Israeli strikes near Damascus killed three people in a neighborhood that hosted villas for top military and civilian officials.

Read more