Israel bombed targets in overcrowded Rafah early yesterday, hours after Washington officials warned Israel against expanding its Gaza ground offensive to the southern city where more than half of the territory’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge.
Airstrikes overnight and into yesterday hit two residential buildings in Rafah, killing eight Palestinians, and a third strike targeted a kindergarten-turned-shelter for the displaced in central Gaza, killing at least four people, according to hospital officials and Associated Press journalists who saw bodies arriving at hospitals.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday said that Israel’s conduct in the war, ignited by a deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack, is “over the top,” the harshest US criticism yet of its close ally and an expression of concern about a soaring civilian death toll in Gaza.
Israel’s stated intentions to expand its ground offensive to Rafah also prompted an unusual public backlash in Washington.
“We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said on Thursday.
Going ahead with such an offensive now, “with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster.”
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said an Israel ground offensive in Rafah is “not something we would support.”
The comments signaled intensifying US friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed a message of “total victory” in the war this week, at a time when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel to press for a ceasefire deal in exchange for the release of dozens of hostages held by Hamas.
With the war now in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are still focusing on the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said Rafah would be next.
Shortly after midnight yesterday morning, a residential building was struck near Rafah’s Kuwaiti Hospital, killing five people from the al-Sayed family, including three children and a woman. A second Rafah strike killed three more people.
In the central area of Gaza, a kindergarten-turned-shelter was bombed, leaving four dead and 30 wounded, most of them women and children.
Witnesses said that those in the shelter were sleeping when the building was struck.
A woman, carrying a small girl in her arms, shouted as she arrived at the local al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital: “There was a sudden explosion. What can we do? This is the work of the coward Zionist enemy that chooses innocent civilians. This girl is firing rockets at the Jews? May God help us.”
Some of the wounded children were treated while lying on the floor.
More than half of Gaza’s population has fled to Rafah, heeding Israeli evacuation orders ahead of the military’s continuously expanding ground offensive.
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