Israeli airstrikes killed at least 28 Palestinians in Rafah early yesterday, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had asked the military to plan for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from the southern Gaza city ahead of a ground invasion.
Netanyahu did not provide details or a timeline, but the announcement set off widespread panic. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, many after being uprooted repeatedly by Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of Gaza’s territory. It is not clear where they could go next.
Word of the invasion plans capped a week of increasingly public friction between Netanyahu and Washington. US officials have said an invasion of Rafah without a plan for the civilian population would lead to disaster.
Israel has carried out airstrikes in Rafah almost daily, even after telling civilians over the past few weeks to seek shelter there from ground combat in the city of Khan Younis, just to the north.
Overnight into yesterday, three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah area killed 28 people, said a health official and Associated Press journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals. Each strike killed multiple members of three families, including 10 children.
In Khan Younis, the focus of the current ground combat, Israeli forces opened fire at Nasser Hospital, the area’s largest, killing at least one person and wounding several, said Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Hamas health ministry in Gaza.
Israel says that Rafah, which borders Egypt, is the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu’s office said on Friday. “On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”
It said he had ordered the military and security officials to come up with a “combined plan” that included a mass evacuation of civilians and the destruction of Hamas’ forces in the town.
The UN said Palestinian civilians in Rafah require protection, but there should be no forced mass displacement, which is barred by international law.
“No war can be allowed in a gigantic refugee camp,” Norwegian Refugee Council secretary-general Jan Egeland said, adding that there would be a “bloodbath” if Israeli troops move into Rafah.
Rafah had a prewar population of roughly 280,000, and according to the UN is now home to some 1.4 million additional people living in shelters or tent camps after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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