Australia, Canada, New Zealand urge ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ in Gaza

Trilateral statement appears to back pause in fighting to protect Gaza civilians leading to long-term truce, warns against ‘potentially catastrophic’ ground offensive in Rafah

Displaced Palestinians stand outside their tents in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 14, 2024, amid the continuing battles  between Israel and Hamas. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Displaced Palestinians stand outside their tents in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 14, 2024, amid the continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The leaders of Australia, Canada and New Zealand joined growing calls for Israel to back off from a planned ground offensive in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, urging a “humanitarian ceasefire,” while expressing hope for a long-term end to hostilities.

A joint statement by the trio of Commonwealth nations appeared to align with US efforts to secure a humanitarian pause to the fighting that would see the release of hostages and could eventually lead to an end to the war in Gaza sparked by the Hamas terror group’s devastating October 7 onslaught against southern Israel.

Urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “not to go down this path,” the statement from Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon amplified a chorus of international calls for Israel to rethink taking Rafah, a move it said would be “catastrophic,” and growing global backing for a ceasefire.

The comment appeared to mark a shift from earlier support for Israel to defend itself by ousting Hamas from power, though the call for a “humanitarian ceasefire” appeared to stop short of urging Israel to end the fighting without achieving its goal of destroying the terror group, which rules Gaza.

“An immediate humanitarian ceasefire is urgently needed. Hostages must be released. The need for humanitarian assistance in Gaza has never been greater. Rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian relief must be provided to civilians,” the statement read.

It added that “a sustainable ceasefire is necessary to finding a path towards securing lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.”

The premiers also called on Hamas to abandon the fighting and release some 134 hostages it holds in Gaza.

“Any ceasefire cannot be one sided,” the statement read.

The statement of concern about Rafah specifically, where over half of the enclave’s population has sought refuge, joined similar sentiments from Germany and France on Wednesday, while Netanyahu vowed to continue the push to eliminate Hamas.

“We will fight until complete victory and this includes a powerful action in Rafah as well, after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones,” the prime minister said in a Hebrew statement on Telegram on Wednesday.

This picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Younis in the distance following Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip on February 14, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by Said Khatib / AFP)

On Wednesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US was “looking for a temporary pause as part of the hostage deal, and then to build on that into something more enduring.”

However, he notably avoided calling that “something” a ceasefire when pushed during a White House press briefing. Privately, the administration is indeed seeking to turn any temporary pause into a permanent one, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last week.

“What that looks like exactly, on what parameters, where Hamas fits into that all, those are things we’re going to have to work through with our partners in Israel and with others,” Sullivan added.

War erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw thousands of terrorists burst into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253, mostly civilians, many amid horrific acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Vowing to destroy the terror group’s military and governance capabilities and secure the release of the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale campaign in which Gazan authorities say over 28,000 people have been killed. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israeli leaders have said that the goal of dismantling Hamas cannot be completed without clearing Rafah of terrorists and destroying suspected smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Israeli soldiers show the media an underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, November 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano, File)

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had drawn up a Rafah evacuation plan for civilians along the coast, which envisions 15 sites containing 25,000 tents each across Gaza, running from the southern edge of Gaza City down to the Al Mawasi area north of Rafah.

It is thought that some of the hostages abducted by terror groups in Gaza on October 7 are being held in the area, after Israeli special forces rescued two hostages from Hamas captivity in Rafah early Monday.

Wednesday’s statement by Australia, Canada and New Zealand did not mention removing the terror group from power, as a trilateral statement in December had, but rather focused on civilians in Rafah.

“Israel must listen to its friends and it must listen to the international community. The protection of civilians is paramount and a requirement under international humanitarian law. Palestinian civilians cannot be made to pay the price of defeating Hamas,” the countries declared.

“An expanded military operation would be devastating. We urge the Israeli government not to go down this path. There is simply nowhere else for civilians to go.”

It also made specific mention of an International Court of Justice ruling ordering Israel to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip, as part of a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide that has been dismissed by Jerusalem as a “blood libel.”

“The Court’s decisions on provisional measures are binding,” it noted.

Mediators in Egypt are said to be racing to secure a ceasefire before Israel proceeds with its planned wide-scale ground operation in Rafah.

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi (R) meeting with CIA director William Burns (C-L) at Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, on February 13, 2024. (AFP)

The statement came as Israel ruled out sending a delegation for further hostage negotiations in Cairo until Hamas withdraws its “delusional” demands, including moves toward a permanent ceasefire, a withdrawal of troops from Gaza, reconstruction of the enclave, and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, among them numerous convicted killers and terror masterminds, in exchange for the remaining hostages taken on October 7.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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