Tens of thousands of Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed during Israel’s war with Hamas as innocent Gazans face crisis and Israel seemingly set to expand their ground war in the region
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the military to prepare for evacuating Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip ahead of expected invasion.
Earlier today, just hours after US officials issued the latest warnings to Israel against expanding its ground offensive in Gaza, Israel bombed targets in overcrowded Rafah.
Airstrikes overnight and into Friday hit two residential buildings in Rafah and a third strike targeted a kindergarten-turned-shelter for the displaced in central Gaza.
Twenty-two people were killed, according to AP journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals. The airstrikes came hours after US President Joe Biden said he considers Israel’s conduct of the war to be “over the top”. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, left Israel on Thursday as the divide grows between the two close allies on the way forward.
“I am of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top,” Mr Biden said after delivering remarks on a special counsel report on his handling of classified documents.
Mr Biden added that he continues to push for an extended pause in fighting in Gaza to facilitate the release of the dozens of remaining hostages that were captured during Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel.
Ever since the horrific October 7 attacks, Israel has been ratcheting up its campaign in the Gaza Strip. First cutting off vital supplies, they conducted a campaign of air attacks before demanding the evacuation of north Gaza, and launching their ground invasion.
As the conflict worsened, with tens of thousands of Palestinians killed, and most of the population of the Gaza Strip displaced, the Rafah border crossing has become a vital lifeline. The Health Ministry in Gaza said on Friday that the overall Palestinian death toll is now approaching 28,000, with about two-thirds women and children.
The Rafah border crossing became the only route to get life-saving aide into the region as medical supplies, clean water and power all dwindled. For the international community, it was also the only way to get their nationals out the warzone that Oxfam previously warned had the worst death rate of any 21st century conflict.
However, over half of Gaza’s 2.3million population have been driven southwards, pushed towards the border, by Israel’s actions, as some politicians call for a land grab and resettlement. But most people are unable to leave the region that is their home, and forced to live in tents or overflowing UN-run shelters.
Within Gaza, few hospitals remain operational, and charities and aid agencies have spent months sounding the alarm for those caught in the war.
Catherine Russel, head of the UN children’s agency Unicef, said: “We need Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems to stay functional. Without them, hunger and disease will skyrocket, taking more child lives.”
Whilst Israel has largely enjoyed support from the US, one of its closest allies, even Washington has begun publicly pushing back, including sanctions against settlers in the West Bank accused of attacking Palestinians.
Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said: “We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation”. Going ahead with such an offensive now, “with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster””
John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesperson, said an Israel ground offensive in Rafah is “not something we would support”. It isn’t clear if Israel intends to heed the US warnings however.
The comments signalled intensifying US friction with Mr Netanyahu, who pushed a message of “total victory” in the war this week, at a time when US secretary of state Antony Blinken was in Israel to press for a ceasefire deal in exchange for the release of dozens of Hamas-held hostages.
With the war now in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are focusing on the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Mr Netanyahu had repeatedly said Rafah would be next, creating panic among hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Mr Netanyahu’s words also alarmed Egypt which has said that any ground operation in the Rafah area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
Also today, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said Israeli forces had stormed the Al-Amal Hospital in Khan Younis. The hospital is home to a few dozen people displaced by the conflict as well as the patients and medical staff. Khan Younis has been the centre of the Israeli ground offensive in the past weeks.
Earlier this week, the PRCS said that 8,000 displaced people were evacuated from its headquarters in Khan Younis and Al-Amal Hospital. It said only 40 displaced people and around 80 patients and 100 staff members remain in the medical centre. The Red Crescent gave no further details about Friday’s raid.
Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar and the commander of the group’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, both grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp. Israel says the city is a Hamas stronghold.
Hospitals in the Gaza Strip have been hard hit by the war. Israel has repeatedly surrounded and raided Gaza hospitals, justifying it saying that Hamas uses the facilities as cover for militant operations. The raids have forced many hospitals to close and displaced thousands of patients and people who had been seeking shelter.
The few hospitals that remain in operation, including Al-Amal, have been overwhelmed with patients and displaced people seeking refuge.