Panic spread through southern Gaza on Saturday after at least 44 Palestinians – including more than a dozen children – were killed by Israeli airstrikes in the city of Rafah, as the population braces for a planned ground invasion of the city.
Rafah, on the southern border with Egypt, is the last remaining refuge for Gaza’s civilian population and one of the only areas yet to be the target of an Israeli ground offensive. It is normally home to around 280,000 people, but currently houses over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million.
Most are crammed into tents, makeshift shelters, schools or hospital grounds, having been uprooted multiple times by repeated Israeli evacuation orders as Israel’s military campaign has progressed across the strip over the past 4 months of war.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday that he had ordered the military to prepare the dual evacuation and ground invasion plans for Rafah, raising questions over where exactly civilians could be evacuated to. More than two-thirds of Gaza are under evacuation orders, and vast swathes of the territory is in ruins.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision to publicly announce the invasion plans is likely to raise tensions between Israel and its closest ally the United States, which have already been running high in recent weeks. US officials have urged restraint in Israel’s military options, stating that an invasion of Rafah without a plan for the civilian population would lead to a disaster.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Mr Netanyahu’s office said Friday. “On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”
David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, said: “Deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah. Over half of Gaza’s population are sheltering in the area. The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.”
Dutch foreign minister Hanke Bruins Slot said: “Hard to see how large-scale military operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. This is unjustifiable.”
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have “disastrous consequences”, and asserted that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land. Another mediator, Qatar, warned of disaster if Israel carries out a Rafah offensive, and Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions”.
Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, told The Independent: “I think this is the last throw of the dice as far as this phase of the war against Hamas goes before the pressure mounts [over calls for a] ceasefire. My main worry is the price it is going to exact from the civilian population there.”
NGOs working in the territory also warned of a “bloodbath” if Israeli troops move into Rafah. Over a dozen children were reportedly among the 44 killed in Saturday’s airstrikes.
“No war can be allowed in a gigantic refugee camp,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah,” said Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN Palestinian Refugee agency. “People have no idea where to go.”
The office of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said: “The Israeli occupation’s move threatens security and peace in the region and the world. This is a blatant violation of all red lines.”
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi wrote on X: “An Israeli attack on 1.5 million Palestinians already facing inhumane conditions in Rafah will cause a massacre of innocent people.”
In the city of Khan Younis, slightly north of Rafah, Israeli forces continued intensive operations which have been ongoing since early December. The Palestinian Health Ministry stated the Israeli military had surrounded the Nasser Hospital, where over 450 patients, 300 medical staff and 10,000 people are sheltering.
Elsewhere, Palestinian and Lebanese officials said a senior Hamas official survived an assassination attempt in Lebanon on Saturday. Reports emerging from the country stated that an Israeli drone struck a car in the coastal town of Jadra, 49km (25 miles) north of the border, killing two passersby.
The Israel-Hamas war began after Hamas’ attack inside southern Israel on 7 October which saw around 1,100 people killed and around 240 taken back into Gaza as hostages. Israel responded by launching airstrikes, a blockade and a ground invasion of Gaza. Health officials in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 28,000 people have been killed in the near four-month conflict.