Israel strikes landmark residential tower in southern Rafah as truce talks stall

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View of the site of an Israeli air strike on a building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip March 9, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Bassam Masoud Thomson Reuters

 Israel struck one of the largest residential towers in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday, residents said, stepping up pressure on the last area of the enclave it has not yet invaded and where over a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

The 12-floor building, located some 500 metres from the border with Egypt, was damaged in the strike. Dozens of families were made homeless though no casualties were reported, according to residents. The Israeli military did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the incident.

One of the tower’s 300 residents told Reuters that Israel gave them a 30-minute warning to flee the building at night.

“People were startled, running down the stairs, some fell, it was chaos. People left their belongings and money,” said Mohammad Al-Nabrees, adding that among those who tripped down the stairs during the panicked evacuation was a friend’s pregnant wife.

A Rafah-based official with the Fatah party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority that has limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, another Palestinian territory, said he feared that hitting the Rafah tower was a sign of an imminent Israeli invasion.

Five months into Israel’s unrelenting air and ground assault on Gaza, health authorities said nearly 31,000 Palestinians had been killed, over 72,500 were wounded and thousands were trapped under rubble.

The offensive has plunged the Palestinian territory, already reeling from a 17-year Israel-led blockade, into a humanitarian catastrophe. Much of it has been reduced to rubble and most of the 2.3 million population have been displaced, with the U.N. warning of disease and starvation.

Three Palestinian children died of dehydration and malnutrition at the northern Al Shifa Hospital overnight, said Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra. Qidra said this raised to 23 the number of Palestinians who had died of similar causes in nearly 10 days.

“This brutal war has ruptured any sense of a shared humanity,” said Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

She called for an end of hostilities to allow for meaningful aid distribution in Gaza, for Hamas to release all hostages without conditions and for Israel to treat Palestinians in its custody humanely and to permit them to contact their families.

The war was triggered by an Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, where 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Negotiations on a ceasefire and the release of 134 hostages still in Gaza seemed to stall ahead of the hoped-for deadline, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on or around March 10.

A Hamas source told Reuters that the group’s delegation was “unlikely” to make another visit to Cairo over the weekend for talks. Hamas blamed the lack of progress on Israel, which has so far refused to give guarantees or commitments to end the war or pull out forces from the Gaza Strip.

In a statement summarizing its operations in Gaza over the past day, the Israeli military said it conducted arrests, located weapons and killed over 30 fighters in Khan Younis, including in the Hamad area, in central Gaza and in the area of Beit Hanoun in the north.

Gaza’s health ministry said at least 82 people were killed in Israeli attacks across the Gaza Strip in the last day.

In Khan Younis, medics said at least 23 people were killed in military raids on homes and in Israeli shelling of a housing project in the Hamad area of the city. In the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli fire killed a Palestinian fisherman along the beach, medics said.

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