Israel orders fresh evacuations in Rafah despite US condemnation

Israel orders fresh evacuations in Rafah despite US condemnation

Israel orders fresh evacuations in Rafah

Israel ordered new evacuations in the southern Gazan city of Rafah on Saturday, which would force tens of thousands more people to flee from imminent attack.

The military has now evacuated the eastern third of Rafah, pushing the operation to the edges of the heavily populated central area. Its move has so far fallen short of the full-scale invasion that it had previously threatened.

More than 1.4 million Palestinians — half of Gaza’s population — have been sheltering in Rafah, most after fleeing Israel’s offensives elsewhere. Considered the last refuge in the strip, the evacuations are forcing people to return north where areas are devastated by previous Israeli attacks.

Aid agencies - including the United Nations- have warned for weeks that a ground invasion into Rafah would be a humanitarian tragedy and cripple already scarce humanitarian operations in Gaza. They estimate that 110,000 had fled before Saturday's order was issued.

Biden says Israel could be in breach of international law

The scaled-down invasion of Rafah comes in the face of heavy international opposition- including from the US. President Joe Biden who has refused to provide offensive weapons to Israel for the invasion of Rafah.

On Friday the Biden administration said Israel's use of US-provided weapons in Gaza likely violated international humanitarian law - but that wartime conditions prevented US officials from determining that for certain in specific airstrikes.

The finding of “reasonable” evidence to conclude that the US ally had breached international law protecting civilians in the way it conducted its war against Hamas is the strongest statement that the Biden administration has yet made on the matter. It was released in a summary of a report being delivered to Congress on Friday.

But the caveat that the administration wasn't able to link specific US weapons to individual attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza could give the administration leeway in any future decision on whether to restrict provisions of offensive weapons to Israel.

The first-of-its-kind assessment, which was compelled by President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress, comes after seven months of airstrikes, ground fighting and aid restrictions that have claimed the lives of nearly 35,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children.

While US officials were unable to gather all the information they needed on specific strikes, the report said that given Israel's “significant reliance” on US-made weapons, it was “reasonable to assess” that they had been used by Israel's security forces in instances “inconsistent” with its obligations under international humanitarian law “or with best practices for mitigating civilian harm.”

Israel’s military has the experience, technology and know-how to minimize harm to civilians, but “the results on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial questions as to whether the IDF is using them effectively in all cases,” the report said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defied the growing criticism from its closest ally. the US. In a tweet one of his spokesman quoted him as saying on Friday that Israel had killed "about 14,000 civilians" - but claimed it was Hamas's fault because they were being used as human shields.

International human rights groups and a review by an unofficial panel of former State and military officials, academic experts and others had pointed to more than a dozen Israeli airstrikes for which they said there were credible evidence of violations of the laws of war and humanitarian law. Targets included aid convoys, medical workers, hospitals, journalists, schools and refugee centres and other sites that have broad protection under international law.

They argued that the civilian death toll in many strikes in Gaza — such as an Oct. 31 strike on an apartment building reported to have killed 106 civilians — was disproportionate to the value of any military target.

Israel says it is following all US and international law, that it investigates allegations of abuse by its security forces and that its campaign in Gaza is proportional to the existential threat it says is posed by Hamas.

President Biden has been carefully balancing his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign against Hamas. Escalating Palestinian casualties and the onset of famine, largely due to Israeli restrictions on food and aid access to Gaza, have fuelled increasing domestic and international criticism. Tensions escalated further when Netanyahu pledged to intensify the military offensive in Rafah, despite Biden's staunch opposition.

In the midst of a challenging re-election bid against Donald Trump, Biden faces pressure from Democrats to halt offensive weapons shipments to Israel, while Republicans accuse him of wavering in his support for Israel.

In recent days, the Democratic administration took an initial step toward conditioning military aid to Israel by halting a shipment of 3,500 bombs due to concerns over Israel's threatened offensive in Rafah, a city with over a million Palestinian residents.

A presidential directive from February required the Defence and State Departments to assess any credible reports or allegations of improper use of US provided military equipment by Israel and to report to Congress accordingly. The directive also mandated reporting on whether Israel blocked humanitarian aid delivery to starving civilians in Gaza.

Advocates for the review argued that previous US administrations applied a double standard in enforcing laws governing the use of US support by foreign militaries, a claim the Biden administration refutes. They urged a clear legal determination on whether specific Israeli airstrikes and aid restrictions violated international laws and human rights.

Opponents contended that a US finding against Israel would undermine its efforts against Hamas and other Iran-backed groups. Criticisms of Israel could increase pressure on Biden to curtail military aid, potentially straining relations with Netanyahu's government and jeopardising support from pro-Israel voters in the upcoming elections.

The White House initiated the review while addressing Democratic lawmakers' and Senator Bernie Sanders' calls to restrict arms shipments to Israel.

Israel initiated its offensive following the October 7 attack by Hamas into Israel, resulting in approximately 1,200 casualties. Since then, two-thirds of the nearly 35,000 Palestinian fatalities have been women and children, according to local health authorities. US and UN officials assert that Israeli food restrictions since October 7 have triggered a severe famine in northern Gaza.