Israeli airstrikes killed at least 44 Palestinians, including more than a dozen children, in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Saturday, hours after Israel’s prime minister said he had asked the military to plan the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people there before a ground invasion.
Benjamin Netanyahu did not provide details or a timeline, but the announcement sparked panic and warnings from diplomats. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are crammed into Rafah, many of them after following Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the territory. It’s unclear where they might run next.
Israel says Rafah, which borders Egypt, is the last remaining stronghold of the Hamas militant group in Gaza after more than four months of war sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would have “disastrous consequences” and claimed Israel intends to eventually force the Palestinians to abandon their land.
Another mediator, Qatar, warned of disaster if Israel carries out an offensive in Rafah, and Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions.” There is even growing friction between Netanyahu and the United States, whose officials have said that an invasion of Rafah without any plan for civilians would lead to disaster.
Israel has carried out airstrikes on Rafah almost daily, even after telling civilians in recent weeks to seek refuge there from the ongoing ground fighting in Khan Younis, just to the north.
Overnight Saturday, three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah area killed 28 people, according to a health official and Associated Press journalists who saw the bodies arrive at hospitals. Each attack killed several members of three families, including a total of 10 children, the youngest 3 months old.
Fadel al-Ghannam said an attack destroyed the bodies of his loved ones. He lost his son, his daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren.
He fears even worse with a ground invasion of Rafah and said the world’s silence has allowed Israel to proceed. “To this day, the world has not been fair to us,” she said.
Later on Saturday, an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah killed at least 11 people, including three children, according to Ahmed al-Soufi, head of Rafah municipality. The dead were taken to Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital, according to an AP journalist there.
“This is what Netanyahu is targeting: civilians,” said a neighbor, Samir Abu Loulya.
Two other attacks killed two police officers and three senior civil police officers, according to city officials.
In Khan Younis, Israeli forces opened fire on the Nasser Hospital, the largest in the area, killing at least two people and wounding five, according to the medical organization Doctors Without Borders.
Israeli tanks arrived at the hospital gates on Saturday morning, Ahmed Maghrabi, a doctor at the hospital, said in a Facebook post.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hospital staff can no longer move between buildings due to the intense fire. He said 300 medical staff, 450 patients and 10,000 displaced people are sheltering there.
The Israeli military said troops were not currently operating inside the hospital and called the surrounding area an “active combat zone.”
Approximately 80% of Gaza’s population has been displaced and the territory has plunged into a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medical services.
Gaza death toll exceeds 28,000
Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Saturday that the bodies of 117 people killed in Israeli airstrikes were taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours, raising the total death toll from the offensive to 28,064, mostly women and children. The ministry said more than 67,000 people have been injured.
Israel declared war after several thousand Hamas militants stormed across the border into southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,300 people and taking another 250 hostage. Not all of them are still alive.
Israel blames Hamas for civilian deaths because it fights from civilian areas, but US officials have called for more surgical strikes. President Joe Biden said this week that Israel’s response is “over the top.”
Netanyahu’s office says it is impossible to eliminate Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.
Egypt has warned that any movement of Palestinians into Egypt would threaten the four-decade-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The Rafah border crossing, which is virtually closed, serves as the main entry point for humanitarian aid.
Rafah had a pre-war population of approximately 280,000. The United Nations says it is now home to about 1.4 million more people who fled fighting elsewhere.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that an Israeli offensive against Rafah would be a “humanitarian catastrophe in the making,” adding in X that “the people of Gaza cannot disappear into thin air.”
Deaths elsewhere in Gaza
Israel’s offensive has caused widespread destruction, especially in northern Gaza, and hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless.
An Israeli airstrike on the central city of Deir al-Balah killed five people and wounded about 10 more, according to hospital officials and AP journalists.
In the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, two Palestinian Red Crescent doctors were found dead in a destroyed ambulance after going missing 12 days ago. They rushed to rescue 6-year-old Hind Rajab, who was traveling with her family to follow evacuation orders.
The PRC previously released a recording of a call from Hind’s cousin saying that the car had been attacked and that only she and Hind survived. The cousin fell silent mid-call.
The People’s Republic of China said the rescue mission was coordinated with Israel’s military, which had no comment.