- By Marita Moloney
- BBC news
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the army to prepare to evacuate civilians from the southern Gaza city of Rafah ahead of a major offensive against Hamas.
About 1.5 million Palestinians are in Rafah seeking refuge from Israeli combat operations in the rest of Gaza.
Aid agencies say it is not possible to evacuate everyone from the city.
Netanyahu told military and security officials to “submit to the cabinet a combined plan to evacuate the population and destroy the battalions” of Hamas, his office said Friday.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war without eliminating Hamas and leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah. On the contrary, it is clear that the intense activity in Rafah requires civilians to evacuate the combat areas,” the statement said.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu said he had ordered his troops to “prepare for an operation” in Rafah and that Israel’s “total victory” over Hamas would be just months away.
He made these comments while rejecting Hamas’ latest proposed ceasefire terms. The BBC has been told that Hamas negotiators are leaving the Egyptian capital Cairo, with talks between the two sides currently on hold.
Most people in Rafah have been displaced by fighting in other parts of Gaza and live in tents.
Rafah is the only border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
On Friday, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell wrote in a social media post: “Reports of an Israeli military offensive on Rafah are alarming. It would have catastrophic consequences, worsening the already dire humanitarian situation and the unbearable civilian toll.”
Earlier this week, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned of a “humanitarian nightmare” in the city. His spokesman Stéphane Dujarric later added: “We are extremely concerned about the fate of civilians in Rafah… I think it is clear that people need to be protected, but we also do not want forced displacement, forced mass displacement.” from people”.
Meanwhile, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said there was “a sense of increasing fear and growing panic in Rafah”.
“People have absolutely no idea where to go after Rafah,” Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in Jerusalem.
“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to an additional layer of endless tragedy unfolding.”
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza killed at least 15 people on Friday, including eight in Rafah, officials from the Hamas-led Health Ministry said. Israel did not immediately comment.
Garda al-Kourd, a mother of two who said she had been displaced six times during the war, said she expected an Israeli attack but hoped a ceasefire agreement would be reached before it happened.
“If they come to Rafah, it will be the end for us, as if we were waiting for death. We have nowhere else to go,” she told the BBC from a relative’s home in the city where she lived with 20 other people. .
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden, without directly referring to Rafah, said Israel’s actions in Gaza were “overblown”. He used the same “exaggerated” phrase earlier this week to refer to Hamas’ response to a plan for a ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Israeli military has a “special obligation when conducting operations there or anywhere to ensure that they take into account the protection of innocent civilian lives.”
“Military operations at this time would be a disaster for these people and it is not something we would support,” he said.
More than 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7, according to Israeli officials.
More than 27,900 Palestinians have been killed and at least 67,000 injured in the war Israel has launched in response, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.