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Palestinians brace for Rafah evacuation, Israeli assault plan

A photograph taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing during the Israeli bombardment of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 9, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Khatib said | afp | fake images

Trapped in and around Rafah, more than a million Palestinians prepared for Israel to complete a plan to evacuate them and launch a ground attack on Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza city.

Aid agencies warned that large numbers of civilians could be killed in the Israeli offensive and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said it did not know how long it could work “on such a high-risk operation”.

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Friday that the army was ordered to develop a plan “to evacuate the population and destroy” four Hamas battalions that it said were deployed in Rafah.

Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating the Islamist militants who rule Gaza as long as those units remain, he said.

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

Washington, Israel’s main supporter, said it would not support an attack that did not protect civilians and had informed Israel of a new US national security memorandum reminding countries receiving US weapons that they must adhere to international law.

“There are no new standards in this memo. We are not imposing new standards for military aid,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “They (the Israelis) reiterated their willingness to provide these types of guarantees.”

More than a million people displaced south by more than four months of Israeli bombing of Gaza are crowded into Rafah and surrounding areas on the coastal enclave’s border with Egypt, which has reinforced the border for fear of an exodus.

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

Israeli forces have been advancing south toward the city after first attacking northern Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas gunmen.

The United Nations said Palestinian civilians in Rafah need protection, but there should be no mass forced displacement, which is prohibited under international law.

“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 enter Rafah.

The Palestinian Presidency said Netanyahu’s plans were aimed at displacing the Palestinian people from their land.

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

An Israeli official who asked not to be identified said Israel would try to arrange for the people of Rafah, most of whom fled from the north, to be moved back to the north before any attack.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said at least 27,947 Palestinians had been confirmed killed in the conflict and 67,459 wounded. More could be buried under the rubble.

Hamas gunmen killed about 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel, according to Israeli counts.

Nearly one in 10 Gazans under the age of five currently suffer from acute malnutrition, according to initial UN data from arm measurements showing physical atrophy.

The charity ActionAid said some Gazans were eating grass.

“Every person in Gaza is now hungry and people have only 1.5 to 2 liters of non-drinking water per day to meet all their needs,” he said.

‘They were all martyred’

Hours after Netanyahu’s statement, at least 11 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah, according to Hamas media.

Reuters could not independently verify these accounts.

Earlier Israeli airstrikes killed at least 15 people, eight of them in the Rafah area, Palestinian health officials said.

“We were sleeping inside and when the attack happened, they threw us outside,” said Mohammed al-Nahal, an elderly Palestinian standing next to the rubble of his stricken building.

“He destroyed the whole house. My daughter was killed. My daughter, her husband, her son, they were all martyrs.”

The Israeli military said its forces had been in action in the Khan Younis area and in northern and central Gaza to eliminate militant cells and destroy militant infrastructure.

It says it takes measures to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, including in schools, shelters and hospitals. Hamas has denied doing so.

Hamas this week proposed a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire, during which the remaining hostages would be freed, Israeli troops would withdraw and a deal would be reached to end the war.

Netanyahu called Hamas’s terms “delusional,” a response to a plan developed by U.S. and Israeli spy chiefs with Qatar and Egypt.

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