EU warns Israel continuing Rafah offensive will put ‘heavy strain’ on ties

Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urges that campaign in southern Gaza city end ‘immediately,’ calls to reopen Rafah Border crossing for humanitarian aid deliveries

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell rings a bell to signify the start of a meeting at the European Council building in Brussels, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/ Virginia Mayo)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell rings a bell to signify the start of a meeting at the European Council building in Brussels, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/ Virginia Mayo)

The European Union on Wednesday urged Israel to end its military operation in Gaza’s Rafah “immediately,” warning that failure to do so would undermine ties with the bloc.

“Should Israel continue its military operation in Rafah, it would inevitably put a heavy strain on the EU’s relationship with Israel,” said a statement issued in the EU’s name by its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

“The European Union urges Israel to end its military operation in Rafah immediately,” the statement said, warning it was “further disrupting the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza and is leading to more internal displacement, exposure to famine and human suffering.”

The IDF began sending troops into the southern Gaza border city of Rafah last week in what it has described as a “precise” operation, with soldiers currently holding a relatively small area southeast of the city. However, Israel has for months vowed a major offensive in the city as part of its war on Hamas, which began with the Palestinian terror group’s devastating October 7 attack on the country.

The EU bloc of 27 countries — the main aid donor for the Palestinian territories and Israel’s biggest trading partner — said more than a million people in and around Rafah had been ordered by Israel to flee the area to other zones the UN says cannot be considered safe.

“While the EU recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, Israel must do so in line with International Humanitarian Law and provide safety to civilians,” it said.

The law requires Israel to allow in humanitarian aid, the statement stressed. It called on Israel “to refrain from further exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and reopen the crossing point of Rafah.”

Smoke billows during Israeli strikes in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 13, 2024. (AFP)

The EU also condemned a Hamas attack on the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel, saying it “has further obstructed the delivery of humanitarian relief.” Four IDF soldiers were killed and ten wounded in the attack. Days after the attack the IDF reopened the crossing.

After Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah Crossing in the south of the Strip early last week, Cairo halted coordination with the IDF for deliveries through the gateway, which is a major conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt. Israel has blamed Egypt for the halt in deliveries while the Egyptians insist that Palestinians operate the Gaza side of the terminal.

Israeli officials have said four of Hamas’s remaining six battalions are located in Rafah, along with the terror group’s leadership and possibly many of the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. But it has faced pressure from the US and much of the rest of the international community to not carry out a full-scale offensive in the city.

Nearly 450,000 of the roughly one million Palestinians who had been sheltering in Rafah have evacuated in recent days as the IDF has escalated its operations in Gaza’s southernmost city.

“We call on all parties to redouble their efforts to achieve an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas,” the EU said.

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. The thousands of terrorists who burst through the boundary from Gaza to rampage through southern Israel areas also abducted 252 people as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military offensive to destroy Hamas, topple its regime in Gaza and free the hostages, 128 of whom remain in captivity, some no longer alive.

People evacuate Rafah, bound for Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2024. (AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israel’s main allies, the United States and the EU, as well as the United Nations, have all warned Jerusalem against a major operation in Rafah given that it would add to the civilian toll.

The US says the military operations in Rafah so far don’t amount to the major offensive it has warned against. However, the administration has clarified that it is watching the matter closely.

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