Israel PM Netanyahu orders Gaza’s crowded Rafah evacuated ahead of an expected ground invasion

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have crammed into the town after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza

February 09, 2024 09:17 pm | Updated 10:30 pm IST - Rafah, Gaza Strip

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip on February 9, 2024.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip on February 9, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he 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.

Mr. Netanyahu made the announcement on February 9 following international criticism of Israel's plan to invade the crowded town on Egypt's border.

Israel says Rafah 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 fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu said 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.

Earlier in the day, Israel bombed targets in Rafah. The attack took place hours after Biden administration officials and aid agencies warned Israel against expanding its Gaza ground offensive to the town where more than half of the territory's 2.3 million people have sought refuge.

Airstrikes overnight and into February 9 hit two residential buildings in Rafah, while two other sites were bombed in central Gaza, including one that damaged a kindergarten-turned-shelter for displaced Palestinians. Twenty two people were killed, according to AP journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on February 8 that Israel's conduct in the war, ignited by a deadly October 7 Hamas attack, is “over the top,” the harshest U.S. criticism yet of its close ally and an expression of concern about a soaring civilian death toll in Gaza.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on February 9 that the overall Palestinian death toll is now approaching 28,000, with about two-thirds women and children. The count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel's stated intentions to expand its ground offensive to Rafah also prompted an unusual public backlash in Washington.

“We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said on February 8. Going ahead with such an offensive now, “with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster.” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, said an Israel ground offensive in Rafah is “not something we would support”. The comments signalled intensifying U.S. friction with Mr. Netanyahu, who pushed a message of “total victory” in the war this week, at a time when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel to press for a ceasefire deal in exchange for the release of dozens of Hamas-held hostages.

Aid agency officials also sounded warnings over the prospect of a Rafah offensive. “We need Gaza's last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to stay functional,” said Catherine Russell, head of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. “Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, taking more child lives.” With the war now in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are still focusing on the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said Rafah will be next, creating panic among hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Mr. Netanyahu's words have also alarmed Egypt, which has said that any ground operation in the Rafah area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel. The mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border is also the main entry point for humanitarian aid.

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