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More than half of Gaza’s population has been displaced to Rafah
By George Wright
BBC News

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says the US is the only country that can stop Israel from attacking Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than a million people are taking refuge.

Mr Abbas, who runs parts of the occupied West Bank, said any attack could see Palestinians flee Gaza.

On Saturday Israel’s foreign minister said Israel could suspend the incursion if there was a hostage deal.

“The release of the hostages is the top priority for us,” Israel Katz said.

Long-running talks mediated by Egypt and Qatar have largely stalled because of the gaps between the Israeli and Hamas positions, but on Sunday Hamas said it would send representatives to Cairo to give a response to the latest proposal.

Hamas wants a permanent end to the war and withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza, while Israel insists Hamas must be destroyed in Gaza and all hostages freed.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Mr Abbas – whose Palestinian Authority is not present in Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule since 2007 – urged the US to intervene.

“What will happen in the coming few days is what Israel will do with attacking Rafah because all the Palestinians from Gaza are gathered there,” he said.

He added that only a “small strike” on Rafah would force the Palestinian population to flee the Gaza strip.

“The biggest catastrophe in the Palestinian people’s history would then happen.”

Egypt and other Arab states have previously said an influx of Palestinian refugees fleeing the war would be unacceptable because it would amount to the expulsion of Palestinians from their land.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is due to arrive in Riyadh later on Sunday and hold talks with Mr Abbas.

The US has repeatedly said it cannot support a large-scale Israeli military operation in Rafah without seeing a credible plan to keep civilians out of harm’s way.

On Sunday White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told ABC that Israel had agreed to listen to US concerns and thoughts before going into Rafah.

Meanwhile the Israeli military said its chief Herzi Halevi had approved plans to continue the war, with Israeli media saying this referred to the Rafah operation.

More than half of Gaza’s population is in Rafah and conditions in the overcrowded southern city are already dire, with displaced people there telling the BBC there was a lack of food, water and medication.

Satellite pictures have shown new tent encampments being built near the Gaza coast, to the west of Rafah and the city of Khan Younis slightly further north, which has been left largely in ruins. Media reports say the tents are to accommodate people displaced from Rafah.

The current war began when Hamas attacked Israeli communities near Gaza, killing about 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and taking about 250 hostages. Israel’s subsequent campaign of aerial bombardment and ground operations in Gaza has killed 34,454 people, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

Over the six months of war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have entered and taken control of all of northern Gaza including Gaza City and most of central and southern Gaza including Khan Younis.

They have since withdrawn from almost all of those areas but troops remain stationed on a road Israel has built that separates northern and southern Gaza.

However Palestinians displaced to southern Gaza – where the Israeli military told them to go for their own safety earlier in the war – have been unable to return to homes further north, a key demand Hamas is making in ceasefire talks, and Israel has given no indication when they will be allowed to.

Meanwhile deadly Israeli bombardment has continued across Gaza including in Rafah, with the Israeli military saying it has been striking launch sites for projectiles.

US media have quoted unnamed Egyptian officials as saying the latest ceasefire proposal given to Hamas involved a several-week period of calm intended to lead to the end of the war in return for the release of 20 hostages.

This week Hamas’s armed wing released two videos showing the first proof of life of three hostages since they were abducted last October.

In undated footage filmed under duress, Omri Miran said he had been held for 202 days and Keith Siegel mentioned the recent Passover holiday, indicating the clips were filmed recently.

It follows another proof-of-life video the group released earlier this week, showing Israeli-American hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who is shown without his lower left arm in the short clip. It was blown off during Hamas’s 7 October attack.

Some 133 hostages are believed still to be in Gaza, of whom about 30 are thought to be dead, after a brief truce in November saw some hostages released.

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