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An Israeli military offensive into the densely populated area where some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge in the Gaza Strip would be “catastrophic,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said late Wednesday.

He said in a joint statement with the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand that the impact of such an incursion into Rafah would be “devastating” given the already-dire humanitarian situation.

“We urge the Israeli government not to go down this path. There is simply nowhere else for civilians to go,” the statement said.

“There is growing international consensus. Israel must listen to its friends and it must listen to the international community.

“The protection of civilians is paramount and a requirement under international humanitarian law. Palestinian civilians cannot be made to pay the price of defeating Hamas.”

The statement follows similar warnings from the United States, other western allies and the United Nations. U.S. President Joe Biden said earlier this week that Israel must not move ahead with a prospective military operation in Rafah without a “credible” plan to keep civilians safe.

The city is located along the border with Egypt, where the only crossing that has allowed limited traffic since the conflict began is heavily controlled.

Trudeau’s statement marked Canada’s strongest language yet on Israel’s conduct in the region, more than four months into its war with Hamas.

The federal Liberals have faced criticism, including from the government’s own caucus, for not putting more pressure on Israel to abide by interim orders the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court, handed down last month.

The court made the ruling as it decided to hear a case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel is committing genocide as it targets Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Wednesday evening’s statement noted that the court ordered Israel to protect civilians and ensure the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance.

South Africa’s government said Tuesday it had lodged an “urgent request” with the UN court to consider whether Israel’s targeting of Rafah was a breach of its provisional orders.

Trudeau and his counterparts also said a sustainable ceasefire is necessary and cannot be one-sided, reiterating their condemnation of Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the conflict.

That day, militants killed 1,200 people in a brutal assault on Israel and took about 250 hostages.

Israel retaliated by declaring war on Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian territory has been under almost constant bombardment since and local authorities say more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed.

International efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas suffered a setback on Wednesday as Israel reportedly recalled its negotiating team and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of hobbling the high-stakes negotiations by sticking to “delusional” demands.

Netanyahu’s remarks came hours after local media reported that the Israeli leader had ordered an Israeli delegation not to continue talks in Cairo, raising concerns over the fate of the negotiations and sparking criticism from the families of the roughly 130 remaining captives, about a fourth of whom are said to be dead.

The relatives of the hostages said Netanyahu’s decision amounted to a “death sentence” for their loved ones.

The mediation efforts, steered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, have been working to bring the warring sides toward an agreement that might secure a truce.

The sides have been far apart on their terms for a deal. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until “total victory” over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages.

Hamas has said it will not release all the captives until Israel ends its offensive, withdraws from Gaza and releases a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

– with files from The Associated Press

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