USAID head: Dire warnings over Israeli operations in Rafah ‘becoming a reality’

Samantha Power, head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said Wednesday that the “catastrophic consequences” the U.S. has warned about are becoming a reality as Israel expands its military operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

“For months now, President Biden and officials across our Administration, myself included, have made clear to Israel that a major ground military operation in Rafah would put civilians at immense risk and imperil the humanitarian response,” Power said during a virtual event with donor countries discussing the situation in Gaza.

“Despite currently more limited military operations around Rafah and the Egypt/Gaza border, the catastrophic consequences that we have long warned about are becoming a reality.”

Power said groups on the ground in Gaza are saying it feels like the war is starting all over again, but conditions are “worse now than at any period before.” She noted that 95 percent of the population has not had access to clean water for months and more than a million people face catastrophic levels of hunger.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, Palestinian officials have said.

“In light of these catastrophic conditions, we are in daily conversation still with the Government of Israel and our humanitarian partners about the urgency of protecting those remaining in Rafah, and those who are again being displaced,” Power said.

Her comments come after an Israeli strike set fire to a refugee camp in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where hundreds of thousands of civilians are sheltering from the war.

The strike killed an estimated 45 Palestinians and wounded another 200 and fueled international outrage after world leaders and activists warned Israel not to attack civilians in Rafah.

That followed President Biden earlier this month threatening to withhold offensive weapons from Israel if it invaded Rafah. Despite those warnings, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby said that the strike did not cross a “red line” that would lead to a change in U.S. policy.

When asked about Power’s comments Wednesday, Kirby acknowledged that “of course there’s been catastrophe in Gaza.” He said that’s been true since the start of the conflict and blamed Hamas for initiating the war.

After the strike in Rafah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the fire as tragic and said the military would learn from the incident.

Israeli officials said shrapnel from a strike intended for Hamas leaders struck a nearby fuel tank near the refugee camp, resulting in the fire.

Netanyahu has disregarded Biden’s warning about invading Rafah and maintains the operation must be carried out to completion, with Hamas eliminated and remaining hostages freed.

Multiple outlets reported Tuesday and Wednesday that Israeli tanks are pushing into central Gaza for the first time, while western parts of the city have come under heavy Israeli bombardment.

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