Palestinians brace for Rafah assault as Israel promises evacuation plan

UN says civilians in Rafah require protection, but there should be no forced mass displacement

By Reuters

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Palestinians check destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah. — AP
Palestinians check destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah. — AP

Published: Sat 10 Feb 2024, 6:41 PM

Israeli airstrikes killed 17 people in Gaza's Rafah overnight, medics said on Saturday, as over a million Palestinians cramming into the border city await a full-blown offensive with the rest of their enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.

Four months into the war in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it has ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.

Unlike in previous Israeli assaults on cities during the war, when the military ordered civilians to flee south, no other relatively unscathed area remains in tiny Gaza and aid agencies have warned that large numbers of civilians could die.

Stay up to date with the latest news. Follow KT on WhatsApp Channels.

"Any Israeli incursion in Rafah means massacres, means destruction. People are filling every inch of the city and we have nowhere to go," said Rezik Salah, 35, who fled his Gaza City home with his wife and two children for Rafah early in the war.

Much of the enclave has been reduced to rubble, with Israeli forces destroying swathes of towns with air strikes, artillery fire and controlled detonations, leaving more than 85% of Gaza's 2.3 million inhabitants homeless.

Most of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, in the far south on the border with Egypt, but after ceasefire talks failed, Netanyahu this week said Israeli forces would fight on until "total victory", including in Rafah.

On Friday night an airstrike on one Rafah house killed 11 people and wounded dozens more, while a second strike killed six people in another house, medical officials said.

In the other main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where many displaced people initially fled before an Israeli offensive there last month, the Palestinian Health Ministry voiced alarm at Israeli operations around the main Nasser Hospital.

ALSO READ:

The ministry said Israeli forces had surrounded the hospital and were shooting in the vicinity, and it was concerned about the fate of 300 medical staff, 450 patients and 10,000 people sheltering there.

Footage circulating on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed tanks at the hospital gates.

A firefighter extinguishes a burning car hit by an Israeli strike in Rafah. — Reuters
A firefighter extinguishes a burning car hit by an Israeli strike in Rafah. — Reuters

Israel's military said in an update on fighting on Saturday that its forces were continuing "intensive" activities in Khan Younis as well as northern and central Gaza, killing militants, seizing weapons and striking infrastructure.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the situation at Nasser hospital.

In Gaza City, the first major population centre that Israel's operation targeted after ground forces invaded in late October, residents reported fierce fighting on Saturday.

An Israeli official who declined to be named said that Israel would try to organise for people in Rafah to be moved back northwards ahead of any assault.

The continued warfare in Gaza City, months after it began and long after Israel said it was redeploying some troops to other areas, shows the limitations of any proposal to evacuate displaced people from Rafah to other parts of the enclave.

Palestinian rescue workers in Gaza City said they had found the bodies of a 6-year-old girl and her family members, along with the ambulance team sent to rescue them, days after an audio clip of her call to dispatchers begging for help was released.

Meanwhile doctors and aid workers are struggling to supply even basic aid to Palestinians sheltering around Rafah. Many are trapped against a border fence with Egypt and living in makeshift tents.

The United Nations said Palestinian civilians in Rafah require protection, but there should be no forced mass displacement, which is barred by international law.

Palestinians inspect a car hit by an Israeli strike in Rafah. — Reuters
Palestinians inspect a car hit by an Israeli strike in Rafah. — Reuters

"No war can be allowed in a gigantic refugee camp," said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warning of a "bloodbath" if Israeli troops move into Rafah.

The UN Palestinian refugee agency said it did not know how long it could work "in such a high risk operation".

"There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah," said Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA agency. "People have no idea where to go."

Netanyahu's office said Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas while it retains units in Rafah.

The statement, issued two days after Netanyahu rejected a Hamas ceasefire proposal that included the release of hostages held by the Palestinian militants, gave no further details.

Washington, Israel's main supporter, said it would not back an assault that did not protect civilians, and had briefed Israel on a new US national security memorandum reminding countries receiving US arms to adhere to international law.

The Palestinian Presidency said Netanyahu's plans aimed to displace the Palestinian people from their land.

"Taking this step threatens security and peace in the region and the world. It crosses all red lines," said the office of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that exerts partial self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.


More news from World