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Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah Alamy Stock Photo

Netanyahu orders plans for evacuation of Rafah as aid agencies warn escalation will be 'catastrophic'

Rafah is the last major town in the Gaza Strip Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.


ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the military to prepare a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah ahead of an expected Israeli invasion of the southern Gaza town, one which Washington warned it would not support.

Netanyahu made the announcement this afternoon following international criticism of Israel’s plan to invade the crowded town on Egypt’s border. It also drew condemnation from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who called it a “blatant violation of all red lines”.

Rafah is the last major town in the Gaza Strip Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.

Israel claims it is the last remaining Hamas stronghold and it needs to send in troops to complete its war plan against the Islamic militant group.

But an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have crammed into the town after fleeing the fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Netanyahu said that a “massive operation” is needed in Rafah.

He said he asked security officials to present a “double plan” that would include the evacuation of civilians and a military operation to “collapse” remaining Hamas militant units.

Yesterday, Biden administration officials and aid agencies warned Israel against expanding its Gaza ground offensive to the town. 

A State Department spokesman said that the United States did not support an Israeli operation in Rafah, with President Joe Biden later telling reporters he considered Israel’s conduct of its war against Hamas to be “over the top”.

rafah-palestinian-territories-09th-feb-2024-a-palestinian-child-inspects-the-damage-and-rubble-of-destroyed-homes-following-israeli-airstrikes-on-several-homes-in-the-city-of-rafah-credit-mohamm A Palestinian child inspects the damage and rubble of destroyed homes following Israeli airstrikes on several homes in the city of Rafah. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Israeli military stepped up its air strikes on Rafah yesterday, with witnesses reporting more overnight.

The Palestinian health ministry said early today that more than 100 people were killed during the night, including at least eight in Rafah.

The Palestinian Red Crescent meanwhile said three children had died in a strike on Rafah.

‘Catastrophic consequences’

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borell described the reports of an Israeli military offensive on Rafah as “alarming”.

“It would have catastrophic consequences worsening the already dire humanitarian situation and the unbearable civilian toll.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres said news of the coming push into the city was “alarming”, and warned it “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare”.

In a statement, UNICEF director Catherine Russell urged against a military escalation in Rafah “where over 600,000 children and their families have been displaced”. 

“An escalation of the fighting in Rafah, which is already straining under the extraordinary number of people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza, will mark another devastating turn in a war that has reportedly killed over 27,000 people – most of them women and children,” Russell said. 

“We need Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to stay functional. Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, taking more child lives.”

Meinie Nicolai, the director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said a ground offensive on Rafah “would be catastrophic and must not proceed”.

“Nowhere in Gaza is safe, and repeated forced displacements have pushed people to Rafah, where they are trapped in a tiny patch of land and have no options,” she said.

“We call on the government of Israel to immediately halt this offensive, and to all supporting governments including the United States, to take concrete action to bring about a complete and sustained ceasefire. Political rhetoric is not enough.”

rafah-palestinian-territories-09th-feb-2024-palestinians-inspect-the-damage-and-rubble-of-destroyed-homes-and-cars-following-israeli-airstrikes-on-several-homes-in-the-city-of-rafah-credit-moham Palestinians inspect the damage and rubble of destroyed homes and cars following Israeli airstrikes on several homes in the city of Rafah. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington had “yet to see any evidence of serious planning” for a Rafah ground operation.

Noting Rafah was also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid, he added such an assault was “not something we’d support”.

“To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought… would be a disaster,” he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed Washington’s concerns to Netanyahu directly during talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem, Patel said.

Asked about the war in Gaza at an unrelated press conference on Thursday evening, Biden told reporters he was “of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top”.

Little progress on truce

The war was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on 7 October, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

Months of bombardment and siege have given rise to a deepening humanitarian crisis, especially in southern Gaza.

UN rights chief Volker Turk, meanwhile, charged that Israel was committing a “war crime” with its reported destruction of buildings to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza.

Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime”, he said in a statement.

Despite a recent blitz of diplomatic efforts aimed at brokering a truce, Blinken wrapped up his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war started without securing a pause in fighting.

On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw “space for agreement to be reached” to halt the fighting and bring home Israeli hostages, even after Netanyahu rejected what he labelled Hamas’s “bizarre demands”.

Egypt was set to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators in hopes of achieving “calm” in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP they expected negotiations to be “difficult”, but said Hamas was “keen to reach a ceasefire”.

In Riyadh, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan reiterated calls for a “immediate and complete ceasefire”, as well as “irreversible” steps towards the recognition of a Palestinian state during talks on the war in Gaza, Saudi state media reported on Friday.

Two diplomats briefed on preparations for yesterday’s meeting told AFP it was intended to promote a unified Arab position on the war.

© AFP 2024, with reporting from Press Association