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Middle East crisis: Rafah operation could result in ‘slaughter’, UN official says – as it happened

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Rafah operation could result in ‘slaughter’, UN official says

An Israeli incursion in Rafah would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at risk and be a huge blow to the humanitarian operations of the Gaza Strip, the UN humanitarian office said on Friday, according to Reuters.

“It could be a slaughter of civilians and an incredible blow to the humanitarian operation in the entire strip because it is run primarily out of Rafah,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian office, at a Geneva press briefing.

Aid operations run from Rafah included medical clinics and food distribution points, including centres for malnourished children, he said.

An Israeli incursion in Rafah would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at risk, the UN humanitarian office said. Photograph: Hatem Ali/AP

A World Health Organization (WHO) official said at the same briefing that a contingency plan for an incursion had been prepared, which included a new field hospital, but said it would not be enough to prevent a substantial rise in the death toll (See 10.32 BST).

“I want to really say that this contingency plan is a Band-Aid,” said Rik Peeperkorn, WHO representative for the occupied Palestinian territory via video link. “It will absolutely not prevent the expected substantial additional mortality and morbidity posed by a military operation.”

He added that he was “extremely concerned” that any incursion would close the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt which is being used to import medical supplies.

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Key events

Closing summary

It is 5pm in Gaza and in Tel Aviv. We will be closing this blog soon, but you can stay up to date on the Guardian’s Middle East coverage here.

Here is a recap of the latest developments:

  • An Israeli incursion in Rafah could result in ‘slaughter’, a UN official said on Friday. “It could be a slaughter of civilians and an incredible blow to the humanitarian operation in the entire strip because it is run primarily out of Rafah,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian office, at a Geneva press briefing.

  • A World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Friday that the agency had a contingency plan prepared in case of an Israeli incursion into Gaza’s Rafah but said it would not be sufficient to prevent a substantial rise in the death toll. “I want to really say that this contingency plan is a Band-Aid,” said Rik Peeperkorn, WHO representative for the occupied Palestinian territory, at a Geneva press briefing via video link.

  • Turkey’s trade halt with Israel will continue until a permanent ceasefire in Gaza is secured as well as unhindered humanitarian aid flow to the region, Turkish trade minister Omer Bolat said on Friday. Turkey stopped all exports and imports to and from Israel on Thursday, citing the “worsening humanitarian tragedy” in the Palestinian territories. Turkish exporters with firm orders are looking at ways to send their goods to Israel via third countries four export sector sources told Reuters on Thursday.

  • Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, accused Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of acting like a “dictator” after the trade restrictions were first reported. Katz added that blocking ports for Israeli imports and exports ignores trade deals, adding on social media platform X that Israel would work toward alternatives for trade with Turkey.

  • The UK on Friday imposed sanctions on two “extremist” groups and four individuals in Israel who it blamed for violence in the West Bank. The British Foreign Office named Hilltop Youth and Lehava as two groups which it said were known to have supported, incited and promoted violence against Palestinian communities in the West Bank. The four individuals sanctioned were responsible for human rights abuses against these communities, the statement added. The UK’s foreign secretary David Cameron said extremist settlers were undermining security and stability and threatening the prospects for peace.

  • An Israeli man held hostage in Gaza since the 7 October Hamas attack has been confirmed dead, the government said early Friday. Dror Or, 49, was killed and his body was held in Gaza since 7 October, said the Be’eri kibbutz where he had lived.

  • International criminal court (ICC) prosecutors warned on Friday against “individuals who threaten to retaliate” against the tribunal or its staff, saying such actions might constitute an “offence against its administration of justice”. The ICC did not say if the comment related to its investigation into possible war crimes by Israel or Palestinian groups in Gaza and the West Bank.

  • The availability of food in the Gaza Strip has very slightly improved, though the risk of famine remains, Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories told a press briefing in Geneva via video link from Jerusalem. He said that the threat of famine had “absolutely not” gone away due to the slight improvement in the food situation. Ahmed Dahir, the WHO’s Gaza sub-office team lead added that “access to food now has to be sustained”.

  • Since October 2023, more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed in Gaza, including at least 22 in the course of their work, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which published its annual World Press Freedom Index on Friday, marking World Press Freedom Day 2024. The Maghreb and Middle East regions performed the worst in terms of restrictions on press freedom by government forces, according to the report.

  • At least 34,622 Palestinians have been killed and 77,867 injured in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza since 7 October, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said in a statement on Friday.

  • A senior Palestinian doctor died in an Israeli prison after more than four months of detention, two Palestinian prisoner associations said on Thursday, blaming Israel for his death. The associations said in a joint statement that Adnan al-Bursh, head of orthopedics at al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, had been detained by Israeli forces while temporarily working at al-Awada hospital in north Gaza. They called his death an “assassination” and said his body remained in Israeli custody.

  • Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, said in comments on X that she was alarmed by the death of Bursh in Israeli detention. “No Palestinian is safe under Israel’s occupation today. How many more lives will have to be taken before UN member states, especially those demonstrating genuine concern for human rights globally, act to protect the Palestinians?” she said.

  • On Thursday, the Israeli authorities released 64 Palestinians they had detained during their military offensive in Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, the Palestinian borders and crossings agency said. One of them was the body of a man who had died in detention, the prisoners’ associations said. Another freed detainee arrived in critical condition and was moved into hospital upon arrival, the crossings agency added.

  • Iran has released the crew of a seized Portuguese-flagged ship linked to Israel, but remains in control of the vessel itself, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said. “The seized ship, which turned off its radar in Iran’s territorial waters and jeopardized the security of navigation, is under judicial detention,” Amirabdollahian said, according to a foreign ministry post on X late Thursday night. He said the release of the crew was a humanitarian act and they could return to their countries along with the ship’s captain

  • Police in Paris entered France’s prestigious Sciences Po university on Friday and removed student activists who had occupied its buildings in protest against Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas in Gaza. A Reuters witness saw police go into the buildings and take out many of the 70-odd protesters inside.

  • Seven people were killed in an overnight airstrike on a home in northern Rafah, according to Al Jazeera’s Tareq Abu Azzoum who was reporting from the southern Gaza district. He said that four of the victims were children. Elsewhere in Rafah, especially to the east, there had been a “surge in airstrikes and artillery bombardment,” Abu Azzoum told Al Jazeera.

  • The Australian government faces a decision next week on whether to support admitting Palestine as a full member of the UN and is swapping notes with allies including South Korea and Germany. A copy of the draft resolution, seen by Guardian Australia, expresses “deep regret and concern” that the US used its veto power to block the proposal at the UN security council last month.

  • Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters on Friday met a counterprotest supporting Israel at the University of Sydney. The Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) reported a scuffle between the groups. Supporters of both sides later backed down because of a heavy security presence, while the University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott said there was space for both groups of protesters.

Annie Kelly

Annie Kelly

Annie Kelly is a human rights journalist for the Guardian and Observer.

Political attacks on press freedom, including the detention of journalists, suppression of independent media outlets and widespread dissemination of misinformation, have significantly intensified in the past year, according to the annual World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The index ranks 180 countries on the ability of journalists to work and report freely and independently.

The Maghreb and Middle East regions performed the worst in terms of restrictions on press freedom by government forces, according to the report. In the past year, said RSF, governments across the region have attempted to control and curtail the media through violence, arrests and draconian laws, compounded by “systematic impunity for crimes of violence against journalists”.

Members of the press corps carry the body of Palestine TV correspondent Mohammed Abu Hatab, who was killed, along with members of his family, in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza, in November 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu/Getty Images

The RSF says that, since October 2023, more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed in Gaza, including at least 22 in the course of their work.

Elsewhere in the region, journalists have been killed in Sudan, where there have been serious attempts to curb independent reporting of violence and civil war. The situation for media professionals in Syria has also deteriorated, with journalists who have fled press repression in their home country threatened with expulsion from neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The RSF also says that four of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists – Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran – have continued to attack and detain them.

You can read the full piece here:

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Yemen’s Houthis will target ships heading to Israeli ports in any reachable area, the military spokesperson Yahya Sarea said in a televised speech on Friday, according to Reuters.

“We will target any ships heading to Israeli ports in the Mediterranean Sea in any area we are able to reach,” he said.

The UK sanctions Israeli groups and individuals for violence in West Bank

The UK on Friday imposed sanctions on two “extremist” groups and four individuals in Israel who it blamed for violence in the West Bank, its latest package of measures against Israeli settlers, reports Reuters.

The British Foreign Office named Hilltop Youth and Lehava as two groups which it said were known to have supported, incited and promoted violence against Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

The four individuals sanctioned were responsible for human rights abuses against these communities, the statement added.

Among them are Noam Federman, who has trained settler groups in committing violence and Elisha Yered, who has justified killing Palestinians on religious grounds, reports Reuters.

Violence in the West Bank was already on the rise before Israel’s assault on Gaza, but it has escalated since, with stepped-up Israeli military raids, settler violence and Palestinian street attacks.

There have been at least 800 incidents of settler violence in the West Bank since October, according to the @UN.

Today’s sanctions target organisations and individuals supporting, inciting, engaging in and promoting these attacks.

Find out more⤵️ https://t.co/JKv7QwUXvJ

— Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (@FCDOGovUK) May 3, 2024

The UK’s foreign secretary David Cameron said extremist settlers were undermining security and stability and threatening the prospects for peace.

“The Israeli authorities must clamp down on those responsible. The UK will not hesitate to take further action if needed, including through further sanctions,” he said.

Those sanctioned will be subject to financial and travel restrictions. The UK previously imposed sanctions on four Israeli nationals in February.

The availability of food in the Gaza Strip has very slightly improved, though the risk of famine remains, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“The food situation has a little bit improved. There’s a bit more food,” Rik Peeperkorn, the WHO representative in the Palestinian territories, told a press briefing in Geneva via video link from Jerusalem.

Compared to a few months ago, “definitely there is more basic food, more wheat, but also a little bit more diversified food on the market. Not just in the south – also in the north”, where people have been surviving on the equivalent calories of less than a can of beans a day.

Ahmed Dahir, the WHO’s Gaza sub-office team lead, said that previously, “thousands” of people had been rushing at WHO trucks heading to northern Gaza – which has been most at risk of famine – in the hope of finding food.

Although availability of food in the Gaza Strip has very slightly improved, the risk of famine remains, says the World Health Organization. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

“It has changed in the last few weeks. Now there is more food coming, and going to the north,” he said, speaking from the Gaza Strip.

According to AFP, Dahir said the food situation remained “fragile” in Gaza, while the population also lacked the cash to pay for food in the markets. “Access to food now has to be sustained,” he said.

Peeperkorn stressed that local food production, such as fruit, vegetables and fish in the Gaza Strip had been “destroyed” by the war.

The threat of famine had “absolutely not” gone away due to the slight improvement in the food situation, Peeperkorn said.

“We cannot say the risk has passed,” Dahir added.

Israel has often accused the United Nations and non-governmental organisations of not distributing aid quickly enough, but those have blamed the restrictions and inspections imposed by Israel.

Peeperkorn hit out at snags holding up WHO missions around the Gaza Strip. “Sometimes, what we could do in one mission, we have to do in four. It’s incredibly labour intensive and also incredibly costly,” he said.

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International criminal court prosecutors warn against ‘individuals who threaten to retaliate’ against tribunal or its staff

International criminal court prosecutors warned on Friday against “individuals who threaten to retaliate” against the tribunal or its staff, saying such actions might constitute an “offence against its administration of justice”.

The ICC did not say if the comment related to its investigation into possible war crimes by Israel or Palestinian groups in Gaza and the West Bank.

US media said this week the ICC might issue an arrest warrant for Israeli officials including prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and that the latter had urged US president Joe Biden to prevent the court from doing so.

On Friday, The Hague-based office of ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan said on X that it sought to “engage constructively with all stakeholders whenever dialogue is consistent with its mandate”.

“That independence and impartiality are undermined, however, when individuals threaten to retaliate against the court or against court personnel” if it “made decisions” about probes that fell in its mandate, it said.

“Such threats, even not acted upon, may constitute an offence” against the ICC’s “administration of justice”, it said.

“The Office insists that all attempts to impede, intimidate or improperly influence its officials cease immediately.”

Khan’s office declined to answer questions from AFP as to where the threats of retaliation may have originated from.

It also declined to comment when asked whether it was referring to its investigation into Israel and the war in Gaza.

The ICC opened a probe in 2021 into Israel, as well as Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups, over possible war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Khan has said this investigation now “extends to the escalation of hostilities and violence since the (Hamas) attacks that took place on 7 October 2023”.

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, said in comments on X that she was alarmed by the death of Adnan al-Bursh (See 09.48 BST) in Israeli detention. Albanese also urged the diplomatic community to take “concrete measures to protect Palestinians”.

The senior Palestinian doctor died in an Israeli prison after more than four months of detention, two Palestinian prisoner associations said, reported Reuters.

I am extremely alarmed by information that Dr. Adnan Albursh, a well-known surgeon at #alshifa_hospital, has died while detained by Israeli forces in the Ofer military prison. While I acquire more information, I URGE the diplomatic community to intervene with CONCRETE MEASURES to…

— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) May 2, 2024

“No Palestinian is safe under Israel’s occupation today. How many more lives will have to be taken before UN member states, especially those demonstrating genuine concern for human rights globally, act to protect the Palestinians?” she said.

At least 34,622 Palestinians have been killed and 77,867 injured in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza since 7 October, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Police in Paris entered France’s prestigious Sciences Po university on Friday and removed student activists who had occupied its buildings in protest against Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas in Gaza.

A Reuters witness saw police go into the buildings and take out many of the 70-odd protesters inside. Unlike in some college campuses across the US, the French protests have been peaceful and there were no signs of violence as the students were brought out of the buildings, reported Reuters.

Police entered France’s top political science school to remove dozens of students staging a pro-Palestine sit-in on Friday. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Sciences Po has become the centre of French student protests over Gaza and academic ties with Israel, which have spread across France but have remained much smaller in scale than those seen in the US.

The Sciences Po university was closed for the day on Friday, with a heavy police presence around its main building.

Seven people have been killed in an overnight airstrike on a home in northern Rafah, reports Al Jazeera’s Tareq Abu Azzoum who is sending updates from the southern Gaza district. He says that four of the victims were children.

Elsewhere in Rafah, especially to the east, there has been a “surge in airstrikes and artillery bombardment,” Abu Azzoum told Al Jazeera.

Rafah operation could result in ‘slaughter’, UN official says

An Israeli incursion in Rafah would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at risk and be a huge blow to the humanitarian operations of the Gaza Strip, the UN humanitarian office said on Friday, according to Reuters.

“It could be a slaughter of civilians and an incredible blow to the humanitarian operation in the entire strip because it is run primarily out of Rafah,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian office, at a Geneva press briefing.

Aid operations run from Rafah included medical clinics and food distribution points, including centres for malnourished children, he said.

An Israeli incursion in Rafah would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at risk, the UN humanitarian office said. Photograph: Hatem Ali/AP

A World Health Organization (WHO) official said at the same briefing that a contingency plan for an incursion had been prepared, which included a new field hospital, but said it would not be enough to prevent a substantial rise in the death toll (See 10.32 BST).

“I want to really say that this contingency plan is a Band-Aid,” said Rik Peeperkorn, WHO representative for the occupied Palestinian territory via video link. “It will absolutely not prevent the expected substantial additional mortality and morbidity posed by a military operation.”

He added that he was “extremely concerned” that any incursion would close the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt which is being used to import medical supplies.

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Al Jazeera report that “artillery shelling is intensifying” in the Zeitoun neighbourhood, southeast of Gaza City. It cites the information as coming from its colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic.

Al Jazeera write: “The attacks come after Israeli warplanes bombed a residential home in the same neighbourhood yesterday, killing two civilians and injuring others.”

The Guardian has not been able to independently verify the reports.

Turkish exporters with firm orders are looking at ways to send their goods to Israel via third countries after Turkey halted bilateral trade, four export sector sources told Reuters on Thursday.

Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz said blocking ports for Israeli imports and exports ignores trade deals, adding on social media platform X that Israel would work toward alternatives for trade with Turkey.

According to Reuters, Turkey has denounced Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, sent thousands of tons of aid for Palestinians and, this week, said it would join South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Yet its decision to maintain commercial ties with Israel until last month, despite Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strong rhetoric, prompted a domestic backlash and hurt the results of the ruling AK Party in nationwide local elections in March, writes the news agency.

Hamas said on Friday Turkey’s trade halt was “brave and reflective of the Turkish people’s longstanding support for Palestinian rights and self-determination.” Turkey maintains ties with Hamas leaders and does not deem it a terrorist group.

WHO says its contingency plan for a Rafah incursion would not prevent ‘substantial’ death toll rise

A World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Friday that the agency had a contingency plan prepared in case of an Israeli incursion into Gaza’s Rafah but said it would not be sufficient to prevent a substantial rise in the death toll, reports Reuters.

“I want to really say that this contingency plan is a Band-Aid,” said Rik Peeperkorn, WHO representative for the occupied Palestinian territory, at a Geneva press briefing via video link.

“It will absolutely not prevent the expected substantial additional mortality and morbidity posed by a military operation,” he said.

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Earlier on Thursday, the Israeli authorities released 64 Palestinians they had detained during their military offensive in Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, the Palestinian borders and crossings agency said, according to Reuters.

One of them was the body of another man who had died in detention, the prisoners’ associations said. Another freed detainee arrived in critical condition and was moved into hospital upon arrival, the crossings agency added.

Dozens of Palestinians who had been freed by Israel in past months including some staff of a UN agency have reported ill-treatment during detention, including torture and deprivation of food and sleep.

The two new deaths bring the toll of Palestinians who died in Israeli custody to at least 18 since the start of the war, the prisoners associations said, urging Israeli authorities to disclose the number, location and fate of detainees from Gaza.

The UN Palestinian Refugee Agency has documented the release of 1,506 people detained by the Israeli authorities through the Kerem Shalom crossing as of 4 April and said the transfer of detainees regularly holds up aid. The 1,506 included 43 children and 84 women, it said.

A senior Palestinian doctor died in an Israeli prison after more than four months of detention, two Palestinian prisoner associations said on Thursday, blaming Israel for his death.

According to Reuters, the associations said in a joint statement that Adnan al-Bursh, head of orthopedics at al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, had been detained by Israeli forces while temporarily working at al-Awada hospital in north Gaza.

They called his death an “assassination” and said his body remained in Israeli custody.

Reuters reports that the Israeli prison service issued a statement on 19 April, saying that a prisoner detained for national security reasons had died in Ofer prison but giving no detail on the cause of death. A prison service spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that the statement referred to Bursch, and said the incident was being investigated.

Medical groups, including the World Health Organization, have repeatedly called for a halt to attacks on Gaza healthcare workers, with more than 200 killed so far in the Gaza conflict, according to an estimate from Insecurity Insight, a research group that collects and analyses data on attacks on aid workers around the world.

The Palestinian health ministry said in a statement that Bursh’s death raised to 496 the number of medical sector workers who had been killed by Israel since 7 October. It added that 1,500 others had been injured while 309 had been arrested.

Israel accuses Hamas of using hospitals for military purposes and says its operations against them have been justified by the presence of fighters. Hamas and medical staff deny the allegations.

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