Rafah on edge: Palestinians anticipate Israeli ground assault
Over 1 million Palestinians in and around Rafah are preparing for Israel's plan to evacuate the area and initiate a ground assault targeting Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza city.
Aid organizations have expressed concerns about potential civilian casualties from the Israeli offensive. The UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, has highlighted the operation's high-risk nature, with Philippe Lazzarini, the agency's head, noting Rafah's escalating panic and uncertainty about safe havens.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office disclosed on Friday that the military has been instructed to devise a strategy for the evacuation and the destruction of four Hamas battalions based in Rafah. According to Israel, eliminating these Islamist militants, who govern Gaza, is crucial for achieving its objectives. This announcement followed Netanyahu's dismissal of a Hamas ceasefire proposal, which also called for the release of hostages by Palestinian militants.
The United States, Israel's principal ally, emphasized its stance against supporting an assault that jeopardizes civilian lives. It has reminded countries receiving U.S. military aid through a national security memorandum to comply with international law. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre clarified that the memorandum does not introduce new standards for military assistance, affirming Israel's commitment to civilian protection.
Rafah, now congested with over a million people displaced by months of Israeli bombings, faces dire humanitarian challenges. Aid workers and medical professionals struggle to provide essential services, with many Palestinians living in temporary shelters along the Egypt border. As Israeli forces advance towards Rafah, the international community calls for the protection of Palestinian civilians and condemns any forced mass displacements, in line with international law. Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council warned against the severe consequences of an Israeli incursion into Rafah.
The Palestinian Presidency criticized Netanyahu's evacuation plan as an attempt to dispossess Palestinians, warning of its implications for regional and global security. An Israeli official mentioned plans to relocate Rafah's residents, primarily refugees from northern Gaza, before any military action. Gaza's health ministry reports significant casualties from the conflict, while initial UN data indicate a worrying rate of acute malnutrition among Gazan children under five.
Following Netanyahu's announcement, an Israeli airstrike in Rafah reportedly killed at least 11 Palestinians, adding to the toll of recent airstrikes in the area. Palestinian health officials recorded multiple casualties from these strikes. Israel's military asserts its efforts to avoid civilian harm, accusing Hamas of exploiting civilian infrastructure for military purposes. In response to Hamas's ceasefire proposition, Netanyahu dismissed the terms as unrealistic, highlighting the ongoing diplomatic efforts involving the U.S., Israel, Qatar, and Egypt to resolve the conflict.