Israeli airstrikes pounded the Gaza Strip city of Rafah Saturday after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his military to prepare a plan to evacuate civilians from the southern border city ahead of an expected ground invasion.
The Associated Press, citing health officials and eyewitnesses, reported 28 people were killed when airstrikes hit several homes in the Rafah area. AP said the dead included 10 children.
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 was 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.”
The statement did not say by when he wanted the plan or to where he thought the more than 1.4 million Palestinians could evacuate. United Nations officials have repeatedly said nowhere in Gaza is safe.
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 humanitarian entry point to Gaza; intense fighting could further hamper relief efforts.
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 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,” a 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 town 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,” said UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said.
Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF, 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.
“Thousands more could die in the violence or by lack of essential services and further disruption of humanitarian assistance,” Russell said. “We need Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to stay functional. Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, taking more child lives.”