Israel Hamas: Rafah airstrikes, Biden calls response ‘over the top’, strikes on Houthis continue

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Biden criticises Israel’s military assault on Gaza

The US president on Thursday called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top” and said he continues to work “tirelessly” to press Israel and Hamas to agree on an extended pause in fighting.

“I am of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Joe Biden told reporters in exchange on Thursday evening after delivering remarks on a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents.

Biden added that he continues to push for an extended pause in fighting in Gaza to facilitate the release of the dozens of remaining hostages that were captured during the October 7 attack on Israel.

Hamas, however, has demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and end the war as part of a hostage deal. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to agree to those terms.

But Biden said he still is hopeful a deal can be worked out that might open a path to ending the war.

Joe Biden meets Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2023.

“I am pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” Biden said. “I’ve been working tirelessly on this deal. How can I say this without revealing … to lead to a sustained pause in the fighting in, and the actions taking place, in the Gaza Strip.”

At least nine people, including children and women, were killed in Israeli airstrikes overnight into Friday in the central area of the Gaza Strip and in the southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt, witnesses and hospital officials said.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population has been driven by Israel’s military offensive toward the border with Egypt. Unable to leave the tiny Palestinian territory, many are living in makeshift tent camps or overflowing UN-run shelters.

The Palestinian death toll from the war has surpassed 27,840 people, the Health Ministry in Gaza said, and a quarter of the territory’s residents are starving.

Unicef calls on Israel to spare Rafah

The UN children’s agency called on all parties to refrain from military escalation in Rafah, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, warning that there are more than 600,000 children in the area, some of whom have been displaced more than once since the war began four months ago.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a statement late Thursday that military escalation in Rafah would mark “another devastating turn in a war” that has killed over 27,000 people according to health officials in Gaza.

She said it could leave thousands more dead through violence or lack of essential services, and further disrupt humanitarian assistance.

Rafah residents look at the destruction from Israeli strikes.

“We need Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to stay functional,” Russell said. “Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, taking more child lives.”

More than half of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah, heeding Israeli evacuation orders ahead of the military’s expanding ground offensive. Evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of the besieged, tiny enclave, which is one of the world’s most densely populated areas.

Russell appealed to all parties to the conflict to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law, which includes taking the utmost care to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Strikes on Houthis continue as Western allies head for Red Sea

The US military conducted new airstrikes targeting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, officials said Friday.

American forces destroyed four explosive-loaded drone boats and seven mobile anti-ship cruise missile launchers Thursday that could target vessels in the Red Sea, the US military’s Central Command said.

“They presented an imminent threat to US Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region,” Central Command said. “These actions will protect freedom of navigation and make international waters safer and more secure for US Navy and merchant vessels.”

The Houthis have not acknowledged the losses.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea over Israel’s offensive in Gaza. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperilling shipping in a key route for trade and humanitarian aid.

In recent weeks, the US and the UK, backed by other allies, have launched airstrikes targeting Houthi missile arsenals and launch sites.

A German frigate set sail Thursday to take part in the EU mission to help defend cargo ships from Houthi attacks.

EU foreign ministers are expected to sign off on a Red Sea mission on February 19, with seven countries ready to provide ships or planes.

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