Israeli assault on Rafah would bring ‘disaster’ to Middle East, aid group warns

By Thomson Reuters Apr 26, 2024 | 8:50 AM

By Maya Gebeily and Emilie Madi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An Israeli assault on southern Gaza’s Rafah area would spell disaster for civilians, not only in Gaza but across the Middle East, the head of an aid group warned on Friday, saying the region faced a “countdown to an even bigger conflict”.

Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Reuters that 1.3 million civilians seeking refuge in Rafah – including his aid group’s staff – were living in “indescribable fear” of an Israeli offensive.

Israel has stepped up airstrikes on Rafah this week after saying it would evacuate civilians ahead of an all-out assault, despite allies’ warnings this could cause mass casualties.

Egeland urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to go through with the operation. “Netanyahu, stop this. It is a disaster not only for the Palestinians, it would be a disaster for Israel. You will have a stain on the Israeli conscience and history forever,” he said.

The NRC head spoke to Reuters in Lebanon, where he visited southern villages that he said were caught in a “horrific crossfire” between the Israeli military and Lebanese armed group Hezbollah. The exchanges of fire have been taking place in parallel with the Gaza war, and have intensified in recent days.

“I am just scared that we haven’t learned from 2006,” said Egeland, referring to the month-long war between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Israel that was the two foes’ last bloody confrontation, during which he headed the United Nations’ relief operations.

“We do not need another war in the Middle East. At the moment, I’m feeling like (this is a) countdown to an even bigger conflict,” he said.

Israel has been waging a military campaign for more than six months against the Gaza Strip, saying it aims to eradicate Hamas, the Palestinian group whose Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel killed 1,200 people and saw another 253 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s campaign has killed more than 34,300 Palestinians, Gaza health authorities say, and laid waste to much of the widely urbanised enclave, displacing most of its 2.3 million people and leaving many with little food, water or medical care.

“Gaza has had a bigger bombardment than even Aleppo, even Raqqa, even Mosul,” Egeland said, referring to cities in Syria and Iraq that have been ravaged by fierce bombing campaigns in the last decade. “We haven’t seen it in modern times, which shows that this is indiscriminate.”

He said a modest improvement in aid deliveries had allowed some bakeries to reopen in Gaza, but that, with border crossings still shut, famine was still looming. An attack on Rafah would paralyse aid operations “in an instant”, he said.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Emilie Madi; Editing by Alex Richardson)