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EU’s top diplomat condemns assault on Rafah as Israel halts aid routes

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Israeli tanks entered the Gazan city of Rafah on Tuesday morning — despite months of warnings by allies and aid groups that a full-scale attack would be a humanitarian catastrophe.

More than half of the population of Gaza — 1.4 million people, the majority of whom arrived having already been displaced from further north — are trapped in Rafah.

“I’m afraid that this is going to cause again a lot of civilian casualties, whatever they say. There are 600,000 children in Gaza, they will be pushed to so-called safe zones,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday ahead of a meeting of ministers in charge of development cooperation.

“There’s no safe zone in Gaza,” he added.

Civilians in eastern Rafah have been told by Israel to leave to a “humanitarian zone” in Al-Mawasi, on the western coast of the Gaza Strip. However, here civilians continue to face attacks, as well as severe shortages of water, food and vital aid, according to relief agencies.

The EU’s top diplomat also lamented the lack of a hoped-for ceasefire deal and said that “the will to continue the war will produce another great humanitarian crisis, bigger than it is already.”

On the same day, Israeli forces seized control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and closed another aid route, Kerem Shalom, in southern Israel — citing security reasons.

“We are enhancing the humanitarian catastrophe and it threatens millions of people with famine,” said Belgium’s Minister of Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez as she called for “unhindered and permanent humanitarian access.”

Northern Gaza has already entered a “full-blown famine,” the U.N. World Food Programme chief Cindy McCain told U.S. media on Sunday, with the entire Gazan population facing acute hunger levels due to the raging war and the blocking of humanitarian aid.

Held-up cash

The European Commission announced in March that it would continue to fund UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestine refugees, after Israel claimed in January that UNRWA staff were involved in the Oct. 7 attacks.

However, parts of the financial support for the Palestinian territories and member countries’ contributions to the agency are still being held up.

Borrell told reporters that “time has come” to restart full payments to UNWRA after a U.N.-commissioned review led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna found more than two weeks ago that the aid organization has established mechanisms and policies to ensure neutrality and “rapid and adequate responses to allegations.” The report stressed the lack of evidence provided by Israel to back the claims of staff involvement in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks.

Spanish, German and Belgian ministers have also supported the call to reintroduce full funding of the U.N. agency.

“We are talking about civilians […] who may suffer more hunger due to the totally wrong decision of a government,” said Eva​ Granados Galiano, State Secretary for International Cooperation of Spain.

Jochen Flasbarth, the state secretary for Germany’s ministry of economic cooperation and development — which resumed cooperation with UNRWA last month — added that after Colonna’s report, “there is a rebuilding of trust in the U.N. institutions.”

However, there’s no unanimity yet on the issue, with Hungary explicitly opposing the agency’s funding, and a series of other countries calling for “alternative venues,” according to EU officials.

“On the next Council [of the EU], the political dimension of this crisis will be once again taken into consideration,” Borrell said.

International outcry

It is not only EU leaders that are dismayed by Israel’s actions.

Ahead of Security Council members’ discussion on the discovery of mass graves near two hospitals in Gaza, U.N. chief Antonio Guterres urged Israel and Hamas to “show the political courage and spare no effort to secure an agreement now.”

“To stop the bloodshed, to free the hostages, and to help stabilize a region which is still at risk of explosion,” he continued.

“Things are moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

Guterres added that he was “disturbed and distressed” by the military operation in Rafah and stressed that the closure of both border crossings “is especially damaging to an already dire humanitarian situation.” 

“Just to give an example; we risk running out of fuel this evening,” he said.

The main deliveries of fuel have been through Rafah and, if cut off, hospitals, generators for hospitals, sewage pumping systems and desalination systems would stop working.

“With Kerem Shalom and Rafah now closed, critical entry points for aid have been lost. Should these crossings face prolonged closure — it will have a significant impact,” said a WFP spokesperson. “We have seen in the north of Gaza what happens when not enough aid can get through to hungry people.”

Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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