Hamas has threatened Israel with the cancellation of talks on a hostage agreement in the event of military action in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza teeming with displaced persons.
Any attack could ruin the negotiations, the Palestinian television station Al-Aksa, which is considered the mouthpiece of the Palestinian group, quoted on Sunday, citing an unnamed high-ranking Hamas member.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the army on Friday to prepare for a Rafah offensive. The town near the border with Egypt is the only place in the coastal area where Hamas still exercises control.
However, a military offensive there is considered highly problematic.
Before the war, the city had around 300,000 inhabitants, but now at least 1.3 million internally displaced people are said to be living there in a very confined space.
The US government, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and others have spoken out clearly against military action in Rafah. UN Secretary-General António Guterres also warned of a humanitarian catastrophe and consequences for the entire region.
Israel has already attacked targets in Rafah from the air on several occasions, eyewitnesses have said. However, Israeli ground troops have not yet been deployed there.
Meanwhile, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri has dismissed the Israeli military statement that the group operated a tunnel network hundreds of metres long and running partly under UNRWA‘s Gaza headquarters as “lies”.
He told Reuters that Israel aimed to undermine the work of UNRWA and was “covering up to that decision by making these allegations”. Israel attacked al-Shifa Hospital in the earlier phase of the war claiming that Hamas ran a command centre under Gaza’s largest medical facility. Israel has not provided proof for its claims.
Israel has also accused 12 UNRWA staff of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack inside Israel. This has led to the organisation facing an unprecedented funding crisis after more than a dozen international donors withdrew their aid. But the UNRWA chief has said that Israel has yet to provide evidence for its claims.