Israel plans to evacuate Rafah, full of refugees, and attack Hamas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a “massive operation” in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, one of the last refuges for civilians in the besieged enclave, his office said Friday.

U.S. officials have expressed concern about the potential loss of civilian life if the Israeli military hits Rafah, a city bordering on Egypt now swollen with displaced Gazans after four months of conflict.

Netanyahu has directed the Israel Defense Forces to present to the cabinet a “dual plan” to evacuate the civilian population from combat zones and to “collapse” the four remaining Hamas battalions it says remain in Rafah, his office said in a statement.

It was unclear what such a plan would look like. Israeli airstrikes on Rafah overnight Thursday killed at least five people, according to local health authorities, adding to the fear among the displaced people there. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) estimates that the city’s population has grown to at least 1.4 million, more than five times its prewar count, with thousands of people sleeping in tents with little protection.

Yasmine Hussein, who has been displaced four times since fleeing northern Gaza at the start of the war, said she heard “multiple bombings throughout the night.”

“We were left uncertain about our safety,” she said, and people are worried about an incursion in the coming days. “Every passing day brings heightened apprehension to the people of Rafah,” she said. “The looming threat of becoming targets is palpable.”

A medical official at the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah said it received five people killed and 13 wounded in one of the strikes.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Statements from Netanyahu and other Israeli officials over the past week vowing to continue their campaign into Rafah have raised alarm among humanitarian groups and prompted statements of concern from U.S. and foreign officials.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that a major military operation in Rafah “would be a disaster.” Under current conditions, he said, the United States “would not support it.” The United States has “seen no plans that would convince us that [Israelis] are about to or plan to imminently conduct any military operations in Rafah,” Kirby said.

“More than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering in or around Rafah,” he said. “That’s where they were told to go” by Israel.

President Biden on Thursday offered some of his most direct criticism of the Israeli military operation in Gaza yet, calling it “over the top.” He is pushing for a pause in hostilities in exchange for the release of some of the hostages still held by Hamas and other groups after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Aid groups warned this week that relief efforts would suffer further if Israel pushes into Rafah.

“Disease and starvation already persist among the displaced population,” the Norwegian Refugee Council said Thursday. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said an incursion would worsen “what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.”

If Rafah meets the same fate as battered Gaza City and Khan Younis, the International Rescue Committee warned this week, all parts of Gaza will be destroyed — alongside any lifeline of hope and survival for Gazans.”

The head of UNRWA told reporters Friday that eight Palestinian police officers have been killed in three airstrikes over the past four days in Rafah and that police force say they will no longer escort aid deliveries.

Conditions are “more and more intense and more and more confusing,” Philippe Lazzarini said. He was unsure, he said, how much longer his agency would be able to “operate in such a high-risk situation.”

Cate Brown, Annabelle Timsit and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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