Israeli air strikes have killed 44 people in Gaza’s Rafah overnight, medics said, as more than a million Palestinians crammed into the border city await a full-blown offensive.
Also on Saturday, relatives found the body of a six-year-old Palestinian girl who had begged rescuers to send help after being trapped in Gaza City by Israeli military fire, along with the bodies of five of her family members and two ambulance workers who had gone to save her.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) accused Israel of deliberately targeting the ambulance it sent to rescue Hind Rajab after she had spent hours on the phone to dispatchers begging for help.
Israel’s military did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Four months into the war in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it has ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.
The announcement set off panic and warnings from diplomats. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, which had a prewar population of roughly 280,000, many after following Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the territory. It’s not clear where they could run next.
No other relatively unscathed area remains in tiny Gaza and aid agencies have warned that large numbers of civilians could die.
“Any Israeli incursion in Rafah means massacres, means destruction. People are filling every inch of the city and we have nowhere to go,” said Rezik Salah, 35, who fled his Gaza City home with his wife and two children for Rafah early in the war.
Israel says that Rafah, which borders Egypt, is the last remaining stronghold for the Hamas militant group in Gaza after more than four months of war sparked by several thousand Hamas militants bursting into southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,300 people and taking 250 others hostage. Not all are still alive.
The death toll following Israel’s response has, said the Gaza Health Ministry on Saturday, reached 28,064, mostly women and children. The ministry said more than 67,000 people have been wounded.
Disaster, ‘repercussions’, imminent
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have “disastrous consequences,” and asserted that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land.
Another mediator, Qatar, warned of disaster if Israel carries out a Rafah offensive, and Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions.”
The conflict has threatened to spread across the Middle East, with Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah regularly trading fire, and flare-ups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
On Saturday, an Israeli strike in Lebanon targeted a Palestinian figure close to Hamas, security sources said. The target survived but three others were killed. Also in Lebanon the Iran-backed armed faction Hezbollah said it had seized an Israeli Skylark drone “in good condition”.
In another development Israeli military took reporters on a tour of tunnels claimed to pass partly under the Gaza City offices of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency accused by Israel that some of its staff doubled as Hamas operatives.
UNRWA, which has launched an internal probe and seen a string of donor countries freeze funding over the allegations, said it had vacated the headquarters on October 12 and was therefore “unable to confirm or otherwise comment” on the Israeli finding.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of falsifying information to tarnish UNRWA, which employs 13,000 people in the Gaza Strip and has been a lifeline for the aid-dependent population for years.
‘Total victory’ objective
Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble, with Israeli forces destroying swathes of towns with air strikes, artillery fire and controlled detonations, leaving more than 85% of Gaza’s inhabitants homeless.
Most of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, but after ceasefire talks failed, Netanyahu this week said Israeli forces would fight on until “total victory”, including in Rafah.
An Israeli official who declined to be named said that Israel would try to organise for people in Rafah to be moved back northwards ahead of any assault.
Egypt has said it will not allow any mass displacement of Palestinians into its territory. Palestinians fear that Israel means to drive them from their homeland then forbid their return.
Continued warfare in Gaza City, long after Israel said it was redeploying some troops to other areas, shows the limitations of any proposal to evacuate displaced people from Rafah to other parts of the enclave.
There is also continuing military action In the other main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The Palestinian Health Ministry voiced alarm at Israeli operations around the main Nasser Hospital where there are 300 medical staff, 450 patients and 10,000 people sheltering.
—AAP with AP