Over a million internally displaced Gazans braced Sunday for an Israeli ground offensive into the southernmost city of Rafah amid Tel Aviv’s attempt to drum up support for an “evacuation plan.”
Airstrikes killed 17 people in Rafah on the Gaza border overnight, as Palestinians crammed into the city with the rest of the enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.
Four months into the war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says allegedly deployed there.
The Israeli military claimed the air force killed two Hamas members in Rafah on Saturday.
Israel’s military ordered civilians to flee south before previous assaults on Gaza’s cities, but now there is no obvious place to go and aid agencies have said many people 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 from Gaza City for Rafah with his wife and two children early in the war.
Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble by Israeli airstrikes, artillery fire and controlled detonations. More than 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been left homeless.
Most of the displaced have sought shelter in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, but Netanyahu rejected a cease-fire deal last week and said Israeli forces would fight on until “total victory.”
On Friday night, an airstrike on a Rafah house killed 11 people and wounded dozens and a second strike killed six people in another house, medical officials said.
Earlier Saturday, two separate Israeli airstrikes killed five members of the Hamas-run police force in Rafah, including a senior officer, Hamas and medics said.
In the other main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where many displaced people initially fled before an Israeli offensive 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, raising concerns about 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 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 center targeted after Israeli ground forces invaded in October, residents reported fierce attacks on Saturday.
Israel said its forces had allegedly discovered a tunnel network hundreds of meters long running partly under the Gaza City headquarters of UNRWA, the main relief agency for Palestinians.
The military said it was evidence of how Hamas had exploited UNRWA, which has launched an internal probe and seen some donor countries freeze funding over Israel’s allegations that 12 of its roughly 13,000 employees in the Gaza Strip had participated in the Oct. 7 incursion.
UNRWA said its staff left its headquarters in Gaza City on Oct. 12 following Israeli evacuation orders.
“We have not used that compound since we left it nor are we aware of any activity that may have taken place there,” it said.
An Israeli official who declined to be named said Israel would try to organize for people in Rafah to be moved back north ahead of any assault.
Egypt has said it will not allow any mass displacement of Palestinians into its territory. Palestinians fear Israel means to drive them from their homeland, then forbid their return.
The continued warfare in Gaza City, long after Israel said it was redeploying some troops to other areas, shows the limitations of any evacuation proposal.
Palestinian rescue workers in Gaza City said they had found the bodies of a six-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.