Dozens of people were killed when “extremely intense” Israeli airstrikes and shelling took place at multiple locations in Rafah on Monday night, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, as international alarm mounts over Israel’s planned ground offensive in the city in southern Gaza.
More than 100 people were killed as a result of Israeli airstrikes as warplanes attacked several parts of the city and helicopters fired machine guns along border areas, the PRCS said early Monday.
The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza said 94 people were killed. CNN cannot independently verify either figure. The discrepancy likely exists because the Ministry of Health only updates the death toll after the bodies are identified. Both groups warned the figure was likely to rise and the PRCS said people remained trapped under the rubble.
The director of Abu Yousef Al-Najjar Hospital said medical facilities in Rafah “cannot cope with the large number of injuries resulting from the bombardment of the Israeli occupation.”
Footage obtained by CNN showed a chaotic scene at Al Kuwait’s Rafah Hospital, with medics trying to resuscitate a motionless child in one scene and medics treating an injured man on the hospital floor in another. In another video, a woman was inconsolable as she held the body of a child wrapped in a white cloth.
At least two mosques and a dozen houses were targeted in the attacks, the Rafah municipality said on Monday.
The Israeli army confirmed it carried out a “series of attacks” on what it said were targets in the Shaboura area of Rafah and that two Israeli hostages were rescued in a “special operation”.
In a joint statement, the Israeli army, Israel’s Shin Bet security service and police identified the hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, and said they were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak.
Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images
Smoke rises during the Israeli bombardment of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 12, 2024.
“They are both in good medical condition and have been transferred to Sheba Tel Hashomer Hospital for medical examination,” the statement said.
IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters that the “covert operation” to secure the hostages began at 1:49 a.m. local time, while airstrikes on Rafah began a minute later.
In a statement on Monday, Hamas condemned a “heinous massacre” by Israel against civilians in Rafah.
The Israeli army’s attack on Rafah “and the horrific massacres of defenseless civilians and displaced children, women and the elderly… are considered a continuation of the genocidal war and forced displacement efforts it is waging against our Palestinian people,” Hamas said.
More than 1.3 million people – more than half of Gaza’s population – are seeking refuge in Rafah, while the majority of people have been displaced from other parts of the besieged enclave, packed into a sprawling tent city.
There are serious shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter, and the city has been described as a ‘pressure cooker of despair’ by Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Rafah has faced airstrikes from Israeli forces for months, but Monday’s bombing has heightened fears that an expected Israeli ground campaign would result in a massacre, leaving those trapped in the overcrowded city without an escape route.
More than 28,100 people have been killed in the enclave since October 7, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday ordered the country’s military to make plans for the “evacuation of the population” from Rafah, after saying the IDF would “soon invade Rafah, Hamas’s last bastion.”
His comments sparked a firestorm of criticism, with Human Rights Watch saying forced relocation of Palestinians in Rafah would have “catastrophic consequences.” The United Nations said it was “extremely concerned about the fate of civilians in Rafah,” according to U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, who said people “need protection.”
A Hamas leadership source said an attack on Rafah would “destroy” negotiations that have been going on for weeks, according to Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV.
And Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Kingdom joined a growing list of countries expressing concern about Israel’s planned offensive.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry warned of “very serious consequences of storming and attacking” the city, while Qatar – a key mediator in the Israel-Hamas talks – urged the UN Security Council on Sunday to “prevent Israel ” of committing what it described as “genocide” and warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe in the city.”
Satellite photo ©2024 Maxar Technologies
A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Rafah, Gaza, on February 3, 2024.
In a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday, US President Joe Biden “reaffirmed” his position that the IDF should not proceed with the military operation in Rafah “without a credible and executable plan” to guarantee the safety of civilians, according to a press release from the White House.
But Netanyahu has dismissed the criticism, saying telling Israel not to enter the southern Gaza city was like telling the country to lose the war.
“Victory is within reach. We’re going to do it. We are going to get the remaining terror battalions of Hamas into Rafah, which is the last bastion, but we are going to do it,” Netanyahu told ABC News in an interview on Sunday.
An Israeli official told CNN that Netanyahu wants the Rafah operation to be completed by the start of Ramadan, which is expected to begin in early March.
Netanyahu said Israel would provide safe passage to the civilian population, but gave no details on how that would happen. “We are working on a detailed plan,” he said.
Many Palestinians fleeing Israeli bombs and grenades have passed through the enclave and sought refuge in the city, as the IDF campaign has moved south through Gaza.
It has quickly become home to a huge population of displaced Palestinians. Satellite images last week showed a tent city in Rafah growing in size in just a few weeks, as more Gazans descended on the area to escape the IDF campaign.
It’s unclear where they might go next; the city borders Egypt to the south, but the border to the country has been closed for months.
For the more than a million Palestinians in the southern city, the expected attack on Rafah is causing anxiety and fear.
“We pray to God that what happened in Gaza City will not happen in Rafah, because if the same thing happens in Rafah, we will have no place to go,” said Mohammad Jamal Abu Tour, a Palestinian living in Rafah .
“If we go to Gaza City, Khan Younis or El Nuseirat, we will not find the supplies provided for us here in Rafah,” he added. “We keep hearing that they cannot find clean water in Gaza City and that they eat grass, drink from the sea, God help them.”
Mahmoud Khalil Amer, who was displaced from Al Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, said he was staying in a tent near a cemetery in Rafah. “We are not alive, the dead are better than us,” he said.
Rafah is the last major population center in Gaza not occupied by the Israeli army.
Other cities stormed by the IDF in its mission to destroy Hamas have been turned into wastelands – a grim preview of what awaits Rafah.
People in Gaza City’s Tal El Hawa neighborhood described scenes of “total destruction” following Israeli operations in northern Gaza, with some people saying they had to drink from toilets due to a lack of water.
“We were under siege. We tried to return to the north but were besieged here,” Abdul Kareem Al-Qaseer told a journalist working for CNN. “Every day there were martyrs. There were shellings every day. There was hunger every day.”
“We even had to drink water from the toilets. We were to drink from it and let our children drink from it. There was no food and no drink,” he added.
Olfat Hamdan said she witnessed dead bodies on the streets of Gaza City, noting that “no one could drag them or move them.”
“What did I see? Total destruction – look at the scale of the destruction,” she said in a video commissioned by CNN, pointing to damaged buildings and rubble around her.
In the southern town of Khan Younis, where the Israeli army urged large numbers of civilians to flee in the early days of the war, the devastation witnessed by CNN was described as unimaginable.
Since the IDF focused its campaign on Khan Younis, many buildings have been completely destroyed and rubble has been rolled away. Those left standing appear damaged without any chance of repair. Some resemble the ruins of medieval castles: lonely walls with holes where windows used to be.
At the heart of the growing fear surrounding an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah is the large-scale human toll of a war that has already inflicted a catastrophic humanitarian crisis on the people of Gaza, including famine, threatened famine, a medical disaster and the deaths of more than 28,100 Palestinians, according to information released by the Hamas-led Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Daniel Hagari’s name.