RAFAH, Gaza Strip –
Israel’s neighbors and key mediators warned Saturday of disaster and repercussions if its army launches a ground invasion in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where Israel says the remaining Hamas strongholds are located, along with more of half the population of the besieged territory.
Israeli airstrikes killed at least 44 Palestinians, including more than a dozen children, in Rafah, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had asked the military to plan the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people before an invasion. He did not give details or a schedule.
The announcement sparked panic. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are crammed into Rafah, which borders Egypt. Many fled there after following Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the territory following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war. It’s unclear where they might go next.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would have “disastrous consequences” and claimed Israel intends to eventually force the Palestinians to abandon their land. Egypt has warned that any movement of Palestinians into Egypt would threaten the four-decade-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Another mediator, Qatar, also warned of a disaster, and Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions.” There is even growing friction between Netanyahu and the United States, whose officials have said an invasion of Rafah without a plan for civilians would lead to disaster.
“The people of Gaza cannot disappear into thin air,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in X, adding that an Israeli offensive against Rafah would be a “humanitarian catastrophe in the making.”
Complete coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Israel has carried out almost daily airstrikes on Rafah, a rare entry point for Gaza’s urgently needed food and medical supplies, during its ongoing ground combat in Khan Younis just to the north.
Overnight on Saturday, three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah area killed 28 people, according to a health official and Associated Press journalists who saw bodies arriving at hospitals. Each attack killed several members of a family, including a total of 10 children, the youngest 3 months old.
Fadel al-Ghannam said an attack devastated his loved ones. He lost his son, his daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren. He fears something even worse with a ground invasion of Rafah and said the world’s silence has allowed Israel to proceed.
Later on Saturday, an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah killed at least 11 people, including three children, according to Ahmed al-Soufi, head of Rafah municipality.
“This is what Netanyahu is targeting: civilians,” said one neighbor, Samir Abu Loulya. Two other attacks in Rafah killed two police officers and three senior civil police officers, according to city officials.
In Khan Younis, Israeli forces opened fire on the Nasser Hospital, the largest in the area, killing at least two people and wounding five, according to the medical organization Doctors Without Borders. Israeli tanks arrived at the hospital gates on Saturday morning, Ahmed Maghrabi, a doctor there, said in a Facebook post.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hospital staff can no longer move between buildings due to the intense fire. He said 450 patients and 10,000 displaced people are sheltering there.
The Israeli military said troops were not operating inside the hospital, but called the surrounding area an “active combat zone.”
Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, said more than 2,000 Hamas fighters in Khan Younis had been killed in airstrikes and ground fighting, but the offensive in the city was far from over.
Gaza death toll exceeds 28,000
Israel declared war after several thousand Hamas militants stormed across the border into southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,300 people and taking another 250 hostage. Not all of them are still alive.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said the bodies of 117 people killed in Israeli airstrikes were taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll from the offensive to 28,064, mostly women and children. The ministry said more than 67,000 people have been injured.
Israel blames Hamas for civilian deaths because it fights from civilian areas, but US officials have called for more surgical strikes. US President Joe Biden has called Israel’s response “over the top”.
Netanyahu’s office says it is impossible to eliminate Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.
The United Nations says the city normally home to fewer than 300,000 people is now home to another 1.4 million who fled fighting elsewhere and is “severely overcrowded.” About 80 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced.
ELSEWHERE IN GAZA
On Saturday, Israel’s military said it had discovered tunnels beneath the main headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City, alleging that Hamas militants were using the space.
An Israeli airstrike on the central city of Deir al-Balah killed five people and wounded about 10 more, according to hospital officials and AP journalists.
In the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, two Palestinian Red Crescent doctors were found dead in a destroyed ambulance after going missing 12 days ago. They had tried to rescue 5-year-old Hind Rajab, who was traveling with her family to follow evacuation orders.
The PRC previously released a recording of a call from Hind’s cousin saying that the car had been attacked and that only she and Hind survived. The cousin fell silent mid-call. Hind later died.
The People’s Republic of China said the rescue mission was coordinated with Israel’s military, which had no comment.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Anna from New York. Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.