Israeli strikes kill 31 Palestinians in Rafah after Netanyahu says ground invasion is coming there

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli airstrikes killed at least 31 Palestinians — a third of them children — in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Saturday, hours after Israel’s prime minister said he asked the military to plan for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people there ahead of a ground invasion.

Benjamin Netanyahu did not provide details or a timeline, but the announcement set off widespread panic. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, many after being uprooted by Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of Gaza’s territory. It’s not clear where they could run next.

Israel says that Rafah, which borders Egypt, is the last remaining stronghold for the Hamas militant group in Gaza after more than four months of war sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

In Egypt’s first public response to Netanyahu’s announcement, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warned that any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have “disastrous consequences,” and asserted that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land.

Shoukry also said Egypt was working to bridge the gap between the warring sides to achieve a permanent cease-fire and free the remaining hostages taken on Oct. 7 in return for Palestinian prisoners in Israel. “The negotiations are complex,” he said.

There is increasing public friction between Netanyahu and the Biden administration, whose officials have said an invasion of Rafah without a plan for the civilian population would lead to disaster.

Israel has carried out airstrikes in Rafah almost daily, even after telling civilians in recent weeks to seek shelter there from the current ground combat in the city of Khan Younis just to the north.

Overnight into 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 arriving at hospitals. Each strike killed multiple members of three families, including a total of 10 children, the youngest 3 months old.

Fadel al-Ghannam said one strike tore the bodies of his loved ones to shreds. He lost his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.

He feared even worse with the looming ground invasion of Rafah, and said the world’s silence has enabled Israel to proceed. “To this day, the world has not been fair to us and given us our rights,” he said.

Later Saturday, another strike killed three senior officers in the civil police, according to Rafah city officials.

In Khan Younis, Israeli forces opened fire at Nasser Hospital, the area’s largest, killing at least two people and wounding five, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.

Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hospital staff are no longer able to move between buildings because of the intense fire. He said 300 medical personnel, 450 patients and 10,000 displaced people are sheltering there.

The Israeli military said its troops were not currently operating inside the hospital and called the surrounding area “an active combat zone.”

Roughly 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced, and the territory has plunged into a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medical services.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that the bodies of 117 people killed in Israeli airstrikes were brought to hospitals over the past 24 hours, raising the overall death toll from the offensive to 28,064, mostly women and children. The ministry said more than 67,000 people have been wounded.

Israel declared war after several thousand Hamas militants burst across the border into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,300 people and taking 250 others hostage.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for civilian deaths because it fights from within civilian areas, but U.S. officials have called for more surgical strikes. President Joe Biden said this week Israel’s response is “over the top.”

Netanyahu’s office said Friday that “it is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.” It said he had ordered the military and security officials to come up with a “combined plan” for the mass evacuation of civilians and the destruction of Hamas’ forces.

The Israeli offensive has caused widespread destruction, especially in northern Gaza, and hundreds of thousands of people no longer have homes.

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 mostly closed, serves as the main entry point for humanitarian aid.

Rafah had a prewar population of roughly 280,000, and the United Nations says it is now home to some 1.4 million additional people who fled fighting elsewhere.

“Another bloodbath in Gaza cannot be allowed,” Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman al-Safadi, warned on X.

In the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, two medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent were found dead in a destroyed ambulance Saturday after going missing 12 days ago. They had rushed to rescue 6-year-old Hind Rajab, who had been traveling with family to heed evacuation orders.

The PRC previously released a recording of a call from Hind’s cousin saying the car had come under fire and only she and Hind survived. The cousin went silent mid-call.

The PRC said the rescue mission was coordinated with Israel’s military, which had no comment.

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