Israeli airstrikes targeted the Gaza Strip city of Rafah Saturday after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an evacuation plan for civilians from the southern border city ahead of an expected ground invasion.
The Associated Press, citing health officials and eyewitnesses, reported at least 44 people were killed — including more than a dozen children — when airstrikes hit several homes in the Rafah area.
Netanyahu’s office said Friday the military was ordered to develop a plan to evacuate civilians in Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it said were deployed there.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.
Netanyahu did not provide details or a timeline for the Israeli offensive, but the announcement created widespread panic.
More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, many after evacuating two-thirds of Gaza's territory. It's not clear where these people could find shelter next.
Netanyahu said this week that Rafah and the city of Khan Younis are the "two last strongholds of Hamas." Hamas has been designated a terror group by the U.S., the U.K. and the EU.
Rafah borders Egypt, and officials there have warned that any ground operation in the area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
It is also the main entry point for humanitarian aid to Gaza; intense fighting could further hamper relief efforts.
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, warned that any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have “disastrous consequences,” claiming that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land.
The dire humanitarian situation has sparked Arab and U.N. concerns that Palestinians may eventually be driven over the border. Egypt has sent about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources said.
Meanwhile, Syria said Israeli airstrikes Saturday hit several sites outside the capital, Damascus. State media quoted Syrian military officials as saying the strikes came from the direction of Israeli-held Golan Heights. The Britain-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three people were killed in the strikes.
The strikes come as tensions across the Middle East have intensified following the October 7 Hamas terror attack against Israel and a drone attack in January that killed three U.S. soldiers in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border.
Netanyahu’s announcement came hours after U.S. President Joe Biden delivered some of his strongest criticism yet of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, calling Israel’s conduct in the military operation “over the top” during a news conference late Thursday.
The Pentagon said Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had spoken with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, Thursday. In their discussions, the U.S. defense chief “reiterated the need to protect civilians as Israel conducts its operations against Hamas.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby also issued a stern warning to Israel about Rafah.
"Absent any full consideration of protecting civilians at that scale in Gaza, military operations right now would be a disaster for those people, and it's not something that we would support," he told reporters Thursday.
His comments echoed those of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said there would be the risk of a "gigantic tragedy" if the Israel Defense Forces expanded its offensive into the town.
“We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law,” Guterres’ spokesperson told reporters Friday about a potential evacuation of Rafah.
The head of the U.N. agency that assists Palestinians said there is a growing sense of anxiety and panic in the city because people do not know where to go.
“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to an additional layer of endless tragedy that's unfolding," UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said.
“An escalation of the fighting in Rafah, which is already straining under the extraordinary number of people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza, will mark another devastating turn in a war that has reportedly killed over 27,000 people — most of them women and children,” said Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF.
Some information is from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.