EU says it’s deeply concerned by expected Israeli invasion of Rafah

IDF intention to expand war into southernmost Gaza city leaves European diplomats worried over fate of displaced Palestinian civilians in the area

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Havana)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Havana)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Union on Saturday expressed deep concern over the Israeli military’s intention to take its battle against Hamas to the town of Rafah at Gaza’s border with Egypt, where more than a million people have escaped the fighting.

The EU’s top diplomat warned that conflict is likely to spread throughout the region unless a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is reached, after US airstrikes hit dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that around 1 million Palestinians “have been displaced progressively against the Egyptian border. They claimed they were safe zones, but in fact, what we see is that the bombing affecting the civilian population continues and it is creating a very dire situation.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Thursday that after Israeli troops seize the southern city of Khan Younis, from where tens of thousands of people have fled, they will move on to Rafah. He did not give a time frame.

Such an offensive could push the refugees into Egypt, undermining Israel’s peace agreement with the country and angering the United States. It might also torpedo slow-moving negotiations with Hamas and complicate efforts to release the 136 Israelis who remain hostages in the Gaza Strip.

The prospect of a ground war in Rafah has raised fears about where the population would go to find safety. The United Nations said the town is becoming a “pressure cooker of despair.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, right, speaks with Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib during a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Speaking in Brussels before chairing informal talks among EU foreign ministers, Borrell said that the Israel-Hamas war has created “a domino effect,” with conflict also erupting in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and in the Red Sea area.

“We are living in a critical situation in the Middle East, in the whole region,” he said. “As long as the war in Gaza continues, it is very difficult to believe that the situation in the Red Sea will improve because one thing is related with the other.”

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, warned of “a real risk of spillover of the conflict.”

“It’s a huge concern. We ask for restraint, and we ask for dialogue and diplomacy. It’s the only way we can calm down the situation in the Middle East,” she told reporters.

Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski from Poland, a staunch US ally, said those targeted in the US airstrikes had it coming. “Iran’s proxies have played with fire for months and years and it’s now burning them,” he said.

Sikorski was referring to the US air assault launched on Friday on 85 sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Revolutionary Guard in retaliation for repeated attacks against US military bases since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, including a strike in Jordan last weekend that killed three American soldiers.

Escalations between the US and Iranian proxies began after war broke out between Israel and Hamas when some 3,000 members of the terrorist group infiltrated Israel from Gaza under a barrage of rockets, killing approximately 1,200 people and taking another estimated 253 hostage.

The war has led to the deaths of more than 27,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since October 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The terror group’s figures are unverified, don’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, and list all the fatalities as caused by Israel — even those believed to have been caused by hundreds of misfired rockets or otherwise by Palestinian fire.

Israel has said it has killed some 10,000 Hamas members, in addition to some 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the terror group’s October 7 invasion and onslaught. Another 224 Israeli troops have been killed in the ensuing Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

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