02/13/2024, 11.18
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Fr. Rafic Greice: Rafah raid disastrous even for Egypt

by Dario Salvi

The ground operation in the south risks dragging Cairo into the conflict. The Camp David Accords at risk. After 130 days of conflict and a number of dead and wounded exceeding 100,000, the spectre of a new Nakba. Custody of the Holy Land: land operation "final drama" for the Strip. Fr. Romanelli: Rafah "only contact" with foreign countries, Gaza is "a cage".

Milan (AsiaNews) - First in the north, Gaza, then Khan Younis and today Rafah. The attention, and the concern of the international community, is now focused on the southernmost area of the Strip. In the Palestinian enclave, the extreme right-wing Israeli government has been waging a bloody war for more than four months (more than 28,000 victims, mostly civilians, including women and children), in response to the 7 October Hamas attack that left 1,200 dead in Israel. At the southern gateway to the Strip, on the border with Egypt, up to 1.4 million refugees who fled their homes following the advance of the Jewish state's military are amassed. Now, however, there is no escape route left and the announced ground offensive, preceded in recent days by heavy bombardment by fighter planes with the Star of David that grazed the refugee camps and destroyed a mosque, could have "disastrous" consequences according to the UN.

Egypt freezes Camp David?

Moving ever further south, the front of Israel's war on Hamas risks also involving Egypt, which is closely observing what is happening just a few metres from its own territory. The Cairo government is relaunching its efforts for a ceasefire and the achievement of a "radical solution" to the crisis, exploring every diplomatic avenue - for now - in an attempt to start "serious negotiations" for peace. The Country of the Pharaohs has repeatedly reiterated in recent hours its opposition to a ground operation, the consequences of which are more uncertain than ever and which risks starting a mass exodus of desperate people who have nowhere else to escape the bombs. Striking Rafah and, at the same time, continuing to prevent aid from entering the Strip, according to Cairo, risks worsening a humanitarian catastrophe that is already underway, which is why it does not rule out the possibility of suspending the Camp David peace treaties with Israel. And open a further international crisis front in a Middle East area where hotbeds of war and tension are multiplying.

"The escalation at Rafah," Fr. Rafic Greiche, former president of the Media Committee of the Council of Churches of Egypt and spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church, explains to AsiaNews, "is very dangerous. Israel wants to take the borders, it is also bombing the wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt and allows the transit of Palestinians to Sinai'. For the priest, what has been happening in the last few days 'represents a serious escalation', because 'the Israelis are embarking on a very, very big adventure. I hope nothing irreparable happens,' he warns, 'and, above all, that there is no new war between Israel and Egypt because the risk is real and concrete'.

There is also a second element, he continues, which is the intense diplomatic work that Cairo is doing from behind the scenes and involving Israel, Hamas, the United States and Qatar "to reach a ceasefire" and which escalation at the borders may jeopardise. "If Israel really wanted peace," says Fr Rafic, "it would make no sense to fuel the war in the south, in Rafah, on the borders. This - he warns - is really an adventure with unpredictable results" also because "although the Egyptian army is not as strong and numerous as Israel's, the danger is great for everyone".

Rafah: Israel blocks aid

"We Egyptians," the priest recounts, "want peace" while across the border the Jewish State seems willing to proceed heedless of the consequences, also because "those who will pay the price will not be Hamas, but the inhabitants of Gaza: elderly people, women, children who die every day" and already today the results are visible even on Egyptian territory. "Egypt is trying to help the people in the Strip, trying to make goods and aid enter Rafah,"

Fr. Rafic recounts, "but the Israelis are preventing this by putting ultra-orthodox at the borders that block the passage of humanitarian convoys. From the Land of the Pharaohs, the common opinion is that "the Israelis are trying to provoke a mass exodus of the population towards Egypt," stresses Fr. Rafic, evoking the (feared) second Nakba already recalled several times in recent days by analysts and humanitarian workers on the ground.

'Israel,' he concludes, 'seems to want to empty the Strip in order to then occupy it, this seems to be the impression of us Egyptians. This is also why the government is threatening to freeze all the Camp David Accords [which led to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty] and this is very dangerous'.

Concerns, those of the Egyptian priest, shared on the Israeli-Palestinian front by Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. "A situation that is becoming more and more serious," he recounts, "as shown by the very high number of deaths in the last few hours. From the victims to the 1.4 million refugees amassed, up to the threat to freeze Camp David - continues the cleric - we are facing a dangerous escalation'.

The Strip risks turning into "an open-air cemetery", which is why "as the Church of the Holy Land we renew our appeal for a ceasefire, the only way to peace. No to violence, no to war and a return to negotiations after 130 days of conflict and a number of dead and wounded that has exceeded 100,000". And in this perspective, a ground invasion in Rafah "would be a disaster, the ultimate drama for which today more than ever," Fr. Ibrahim concludes, "the international community is called upon to intervene".

A  trapped people

The testimonies arriving from Rafah are increasingly dramatic, with images of families sleeping in the streets or, the 'luckiest' in tents in the freezing cold, all united by the vain search for food, water, medicines or blankets. To the original residents has been added the massive and progressive exodus from the north, for a population density today of 22,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, a number that is already unsustainable in the short term.

However, even in the north, in Gaza, the reality remains one of extreme emergency, as pointed out to AsiaNews by the parish priest of the Holy Family, Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, who since the beginning of the conflict has been unable to return to his people because of the border closure imposed by Israel.

He is in constant connection with Pope Francis "whom I hear from almost every day" and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Card. Pierbattista Pizzaballa tries to coordinate the (little) aid and show the face of solidarity and closeness to a people trapped.

"The Christians of Gaza - underlines the Argentinean priest of the Incarnate Word - live a condition of continuous anxiety and concern. On the one hand, they hope for a truce, which will come soon and be permanent, despite the fact that the reality on the other hand is very serious'.

The attack on Rafah, continues Fr. Romanelli, "is very scary, because it is the only contact left with the outside world, and the open-air prison has now turned into a cage. In the parish we host 600 people, in the Greek Orthodox Church there are another 200, while 200 Christians are in the south where they had gone in recent weeks with the prospect of getting out, some to emigrate to Australia, but they too have been stuck. No one can get out and everyone, from Gaza to Khan Younis, all the way to Rafah have been bombed,' but what is most worrying now is 'how to manage the 1.4 million people' [according to some, the displaced are up to 1.8 million] who are crowded at the border.

Finally, the parish priest of Gaza emphasises the dramatic humanitarian conditions of the population, where people are dying, as was the case for Hani Abu Daoud, even from diseases that are easily treatable outside. "He had four children, the last only a few months old," he concludes, "but he died alone. This tragedy must be stopped, because every day, every hour means more victims, more injured in a tragedy that is getting bigger and bigger'.


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