Palestinians brace for Rafah assault as Israel promises evacuation plan

Israeli air strikes killed 17 people in Gaza's Rafah overnight, medics said on Saturday (local time), as over a million Palestinians cramming into the border city await a full-blown offensive with the rest of their enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.

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.

Unlike in previous Israeli assaults on cities during the war, when the military ordered civilians to flee south, 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.

The conflict in Gaza began on Oct. 7 when Hamas gunmen stormed border defences to attack Israeli towns, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and dragging around 250 hostages back to Gaza according to Israeli tallies.

Israel responded with a massive bombardment and ground offensive in which about 28,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed, according to medical authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.

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.

Much of Gaza has meanwhile 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 2.3 million inhabitants homeless.

Most of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, in the far south on the border with Egypt, but after ceasefire talks failed, Netanyahu this week said Israeli forces would fight on until "total victory", including in Rafah.

On Friday night an air strike on one Rafah house killed 11 people and wounded dozens more, while a second strike killed six people in another house, medical officials said.

In the other main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where many displaced people initially fled before an Israeli offensive there last month, the Palestinian Health Ministry voiced alarm at Israeli operations around the main Nasser Hospital.

The ministry said Israeli forces had surrounded the hospital and were shooting in the vicinity, and it was concerned about the fate of 300 medical staff, 450 patients and 10,000 people sheltering there.

Footage circulating on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed tanks at the hospital gates.

Israel's military said in an update on fighting on Saturday that its forces were continuing "intensive" activities in Khan Younis as well as northern and central Gaza, killing militants, seizing weapons and striking infrastructure.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the situation at Nasser hospital.


In Gaza City, the first major population centre that Israel's operation targeted after ground forces invaded in late October, residents reported fierce fighting on Saturday.

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.

"There is limited space and great risk in putting Rafah under further military escalation due to the growing number of Palestinians there," Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday, warning that an escalation would have "dire consequences".

The 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.

Palestinian rescue workers in Gaza City said they had found the bodies of a 6-year-old girl and her family members, along with the ambulance team sent to rescue them, days after an audio clip of her call to dispatchers begging for help was released.

Meanwhile doctors and aid workers are struggling to supply even basic aid to Palestinians sheltering around Rafah. Many are trapped against a border fence with Egypt and living in makeshift tents.

The United Nations said Palestinian civilians in Rafah, opens new tab require protection, but there should be no forced mass displacement, which is barred by international law.

Netanyahu's office said Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas while it retains units in Rafah.

The Palestinian Presidency said Netanyahu's plans aimed to displace the Palestinian people from their land.

"Taking this step threatens security and peace in the region and the world. It crosses all red lines," said the office of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that exerts partial self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.