RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israeli airstrikes killed at least 44 Palestinians — including more than a dozen children — in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Saturday, just hours after Israel’s prime minister said he had asked the military to plan for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Number of people there before the ground attack.
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 population is concentrated in Rafah; most of them after following Israeli evacuation orders, which now cover two-thirds of the area. It’s unclear where they might flee next.
Israel says Rafah, on the Egyptian border, is Hamas’ last remaining stronghold in Gaza after more than four months of war sparked by a Hamas attack on October 7.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground attack on Rafah would lead to “catastrophic consequences” and suggested that Israel aims to eventually expel Palestinians from their land.
Another mediator, Qatar, warned of a disaster if Israel carried out an attack on Rafah, while Saudi Arabia warned of “very serious repercussions”. Friction is also increasing between Netanyahu and the United States, whose officials say the Rafah invasion, which has no plans for the civilian population, will lead to disaster.
Israel has been carrying out almost daily airstrikes in Rafah in recent weeks, despite telling civilians to seek refuge there to avoid the current ground war in Khan Younis in the north.
Three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah district overnight into Saturday killed 28 people, according to a health official and Associated Press journalists who saw the bodies arrive at hospitals. In each attack, multiple members of three families were killed, including a total of 10 children, the youngest of whom was 3 months old.
Fadil al-Ghannam said an attack left the bodies of his loved ones torn to pieces. He lost his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. He fears worse than a land invasion of Rafah and has said the world’s silence has allowed Israel to advance.
Later Saturday, an Israeli airstrike on a house in Rafah killed at least 11 people, including three children, according to Rafah mayor Ahmed al-Soufi. According to the AP correspondent, the deceased were taken to Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital.
“What Netanyahu is targeting are civilians,” said Samir Abu Loulya, a neighbor.
According to city officials, two police officers and three senior officers from the plainclothes police were killed in two other attacks.
In Khan Younis, Israeli forces opened fire on Nasser Hospital, the largest hospital in the region, killing at least two people and wounding five others, according to the medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders. Ahmed Maghrabi, a doctor at the hospital, said in a Facebook post that Israeli tanks reached the hospital gate on Saturday morning.
Ministry of Health spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hospital staff could no longer move between buildings due to the intense fire. He said that 300 medical personnel, 450 patients and 10 thousand displaced people are sheltered here.
The Israeli military said soldiers were not currently operating inside the hospital and described the surrounding area as an “active war zone.”
Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzl Halevi said that more than 2,000 Hamas fighters had been killed in airstrikes and ground attacks in Khan Younis, but that the offensive in the city was not over yet.
Gaza Ministry of Health said in a statement on Saturday that the bodies of 117 people killed in Israeli airstrikes were brought to hospitals in the last 24 hours, and the number of deaths in the attack increased to 28,064, mostly women and children. More than 67,000 people were injured, the ministry said.
Israel declared war on October 7 after thousands of Hamas fighters crossed the border into southern Israel, killing 1,300 people and taking 250 hostages. 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 this week said Israel’s response was “excessive.”
Netanyahu’s office says it is impossible to eliminate Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.
Egypt has warned that any movement by Palestinians into Egypt would threaten the four-decade-old peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The Rafah border crossing, which is mostly closed, serves as the main entry point for humanitarian aid.
Rafah’s pre-war population was approximately 280,000. The United Nations says it is now home to an additional 1.4 million people fleeing wars elsewhere. Nearly 80 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced and the region has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis due to shortages of food and medical services.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that Israel’s attack on Rafah “would be a humanitarian disaster in the making”, adding to X that “people in Gaza cannot disappear”.
On Saturday, the Israeli military said it had discovered tunnels under the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City and claimed Hamas fighters were using the area.
Five people were killed and about 10 others were injured in an Israeli airstrike on the central town of Deir al-Balah, according to hospital officials and AP journalists.
In Tel al-Hawa district of Gaza City, two paramedics from the Palestinian Red Crescent were found dead in an ambulance that disappeared 12 days ago. They had rushed to save 5-year-old Hind Rajab, who was traveling with her family to comply with evacuation orders.
The People’s Republic of China had previously released a recording of a phone call from Hind’s cousin, who said the car had come under fire and only he and Hind survived. The cousin fell silent in the middle of the conversation.
The PRC said the rescue mission was carried out in coordination with the Israeli army, but did not comment on the matter.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.