Israel-Hamas war: Netanyahu orders Gaza’s crowded Rafah evacuated ahead of an expected ground invasion

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he has ordered the army to prepare a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah ahead of an expected Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territories. densely populated city in southern Gaza.

The announcement came after heavy international criticism, including from the US, over Israeli intentions to move ground troops to the city bordering Egypt. Rafah had a population of about 280,000 before the war and, according to the United Nations, is now home to an additional 1.4 million people living with relatives, in shelters or in vast tent camps after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Israel says Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza after more than four months of war.

“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war, eliminating Hamas, by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu’s office said. “On the contrary, it is clear that the intense activity in Rafah requires civilians to evacuate the combat areas.”

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on October 13, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on January 14, 2024. The city is normally home to 280,000 people.  But the population has swelled to more than 1.5 million people — roughly three-quarters of Gaza's population — as people flee fighting elsewhere in Gaza.  Vast tent camps are now spread across the city.  (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on January 14, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

It said he ordered the military and security officials to come up with a “combined plan” that would include a mass evacuation of civilians and the destruction of Hamas forces in the city.

Israel declared war after several thousand Hamas militants crossed the border into southern Israel on October 7which left 1,200 people dead and 250 others taken hostage. An Israeli air and ground offensive has killed about 28,000 Palestinians, most of them women and minors, according to local health officials. About 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced, and the area has plunged into crisis. humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medical services.

Netanyahu has largely dismissed international criticism of the civilian deaths, saying Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by operating and hiding in residential areas. But that criticism has increased in recent days as Netanyahu and other leaders vow to enter Rafah.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Israel’s behavior in the war is “over the top”, the strongest US criticism yet of its close ally. The State Department said an invasion of Rafah under current conditions “would be a disaster.”

The operation will be challenging on many levels. It remains unclear where citizens can go. The Israeli offensive has caused widespread destruction, especially in northern Gaza, and left hundreds of thousands of people without homes to return to.

In addition, Egypt has warned that any movement of Palestinians across the border into Egypt would threaten the four-decade-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The Gaza-Egypt border crossing, which is largely closed, serves as the main entry point for humanitarian aid.

Israel has already started attacking Rafah from the air. Airstrikes overnight through Friday hit two residential buildings in Rafah, while two other sites in central Gaza were bombed, including one that damaged a kindergarten that had become a shelter for displaced Palestinians. Twenty-two people were killed, according to AP journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals.

INCREASING FRICTION

Comments from top US officials about Rafah have signaled this growing friction with Netanyahu after a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Blinken, who along with Egypt and Qatar has tried to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, left the region on Thursday without an agreement. But he said he believed it was still possible to reach an agreement that would include an extended pause in fighting in exchange for the release of many of the more than a hundred hostages held by Hamas.

Netanyahu appeared to rebuff Blinken, saying he would settle for nothing less than a “total victory.” The Israeli leader has said the war aims to destroy Hamas’ military and administrative capabilities and return all hostages home. With Blinken still in town, Netanyahu said achieving these goals would require an operation in Rafah. Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday that pursuing such an offensive “without planning and little thought in an area that shelters a million people would be a disaster.”

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah “is not something we would support.”

Aid agency officials have also warned about the prospect of a Rafah offensive. “We need Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to remain functional,” said Catherine Russell, head of the UN children’s agency UNICEF. “Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, destroying even more children’s lives.”

With the war in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are still focused on the town of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said Rafah will be next, causing panic among hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Palestinian women react after their home was hit by an Israeli attack in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinian women react after their home was hit by an Israeli attack in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

OVERNIGHT AIRCRAFT

Shortly after midnight Friday, a residential building near Kuwait’s Rafah hospital was hit, killing five people from the al-Sayed family, including three children and a woman. A second Rafah attack killed three more people.

Another overnight strike in the central city of Deir al-Balah claimed nine lives. Also in central Gaza, an attack took place near a kindergarten-turned-shelter, damaging the building. It killed five and injured several more people. Witnesses said the shelter residents were asleep at the time.

A woman, carrying a little girl in her arms, shouted as she arrived at the local Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital: “What can we do? This is the work of the cowardly Zionist enemy who chooses innocent civilians. This girl fires rockets at the Jews? May God help us.”

Some injured children were treated lying on the ground.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli attack in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli attack in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday, February 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

WORKING FOR A STATE FEAR

Israel’s four-month air and ground offensive one of the most destructive in recent history – has killed 27,947 Palestinians and injured more than 67,000, local health officials said Friday. According to the UN, the war has driven most people from their homes and pushed a quarter of the population into famine

Biden has said he continues to work “tirelessly” to pressure Israel and Hamas to agree to an extended pause in fighting.

Netanyahu has rejected Hamas’ demands for a hostage deal that would include an end to the war and the release of hundreds of veteran Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israel for deadly attacks carried out as part of the long-running conflict. Netanyahu dismissed Hamas’s demands as misleading, even as Blinken said he believes continued negotiations, through mediators Egypt and Qatar, are possible.

Israel’s war goals appear increasingly elusive, as does Hamas reappears in parts of northern Gaza, which was the first target of the offensive and suffered widespread destruction. Israel has rescued just one hostage, while Hamas says several have been killed in airstrikes or failed rescue missions.

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