A day after President Biden called Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip “a“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that the war was likely to escalate. The Israeli leader said Friday that he had ordered his forces to prepare a plan to evacuate the population of ahead of an expected Israeli invasion of the southern Gaza city.
Netanyahu made the announcement following international criticism, including from Mr. Biden and his top aides, of Israel’s plan to invade the country..
Israel says Rafah is Hamas’s last bastion and that it must send troops to carry out its war plan against the Islamic militant group, which it says still has “four battalions” there. But an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have crowded into the city and surrounding areas after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza, as the Israeli Defense Forces urged them to seek refuge there.
Netanyahu said a “massive operation” was needed in Rafah. He said he had asked security officials to present a “dual plan” that would include the evacuation of civilians and a military operation aimed at “collapse” the remaining Hamas militant units.
Biden calls Israel’s actions in Gaza ‘exaggerated’
Mr. Biden said Thursday that Israel’s conduct in the war, sparked by a deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7, had been “exaggerated,” the harshest criticism the United States has ever leveled at its close ally and an expression of concern over the increasing number of civilian deaths. in Gaza.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said Friday that the overall Palestinian death toll was approaching 28,000, about two-thirds of them women and children. The count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
On Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president had not changed his position on the war and that the United States wanted Hamas defeated.
“He was very clear on this point. It’s a common objective that we obviously share with Israel,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “But at the same time … while saying that, we have also been very clear – the president has been very clear – that they must do so by ensuring that their operations are targeted and carried out in a way that protects civilians innocent.”
Israel’s stated intentions to expand its ground offensive toward Rafah also provoked an unusual public reaction in Washington.
“We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesperson, said Thursday. Launching such an offensive now “without planning and without thought in an area where a million people are sheltering would be a disaster”.
John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah was “not something we would support.”
The comments signal intensifying US friction with Netanyahu, who issued a message of “total victory” in the war this week, at a time when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel to lobby for a ceasefire agreement in exchange for liberation. dozens of hostages held by Hamas.
Israel continues to bomb Rafah
As the White House issued these warnings, Israel bombed more targets in Rafah.
Airstrikes overnight and into Friday hit two residential buildings in Rafah, while two other sites were bombed in central Gaza, including one that damaged a kindergarten turned into a shelter for displaced Palestinians, a reported the Associated Press. Twenty-two people were killed, according to Associated Press journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals.
Aid agency officials have also warned of the prospect of an offensive on Rafah. “We need Gaza’s last hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to remain functional,” said Catherine Russell, director of UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency. “Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, killing even more children.”
As the war enters its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are still focused on the town of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said Rafah will be next, spreading panic among hundreds thousands of displaced people.
Netanyahu’s words also, who said any ground operations in the Rafah region or any mass movement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel. The largely closed border between Gaza and Egypt is also the main entry point for humanitarian aid.
Shortly after midnight on Friday, a residential building was struck near the Kuwaiti Rafah hospital, killing five people from the al-Sayed family, including three children and a woman. A second strike on Rafah killed three more people.
Another overnight strike, in the central town of Deir al-Balah, killed nine people, the AP reported. Also in central Gaza, a strike hit near a kindergarten converted into a shelter, damaging the building. He killed five people and injured several others. Witnesses said the shelter residents were sleeping at the time.
According to the AP, a woman, carrying a baby girl in her arms, shouted upon arrival at the local Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital: “What can we do?” This is the work of the cowardly Zionist enemy who chooses innocent civilians. girl fires rockets at Jews? May God help us.
Some of the injured children were treated while lying on the ground.
More than half of Gaza’s population fled to Rafah, obeying Israeli evacuation orders ahead of the ever-expanding army’s ground offensive. Evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of the besieged territory, although around 300,000 Palestinians remain in the northern half of Gaza, which civilians were ordered to leave at the start of the war.
Even in areas of refuge, such as Rafah, Israel regularly launches airstrikes against what it considers Hamas targets. It holds the militant group responsible for civilian casualties because it operates from civilian areas.
Israel’s four-month air and ground offensive – among the most destructive in recent history – has killed 27,947 Palestinians and injured more than 67,000, local health authorities announced on Friday. The war drove most people from their homes and pushed a quarter of the population into starvation.
Mr. Biden said he continues to work “tirelessly” to pressure Israel and Hamas to agree to an extended pause in fighting. A truce would be linked to the release of dozens of hostages, of the approximately 250 captured on October 7, and who would still be held by Hamas.
Netanyahu has rejected Hamas’ demands for a hostage deal, which includes an end to the war and the release of hundreds of veteran Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israel for deadly attacks in the long-running conflict. Netanyahu called Hamas’ demands illusory, although Blinken said he believed continued negotiations, through Egyptian and Qatari mediators, were possible.
Israel’s war aims, as Hamas re-emerges in parts of northern Gaza, which was the first target of the offensive and has seen widespread destruction. Israel rescued only one hostage, while Hamas says several were killed in airstrikes or botched rescue missions.
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