- By Marita Moloney
- BBC News
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the army to prepare to evacuate civilians from the southern Gaza city of Rafah ahead of an expanded offensive against Hamas.
1.5 million Palestinians are in Rafah seeking refuge from Israeli military operations in other parts of Gaza.
Aid groups say it is impossible to evacuate everyone from the town.
Mr Netanyahu told military and security officials to “submit to the cabinet a coordinated plan to evacuate people and destroy militias,” his office said on Friday.
“The goal of the war will not be achieved by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah without eliminating Hamas. Rather, it is clear that serious operations in Rafah will require the evacuation of civilian fighting areas,” the statement added.
Earlier this week, Mr Netanyahu ordered troops “ready to operate” in Rafah and said Israel's “total victory” over Hamas was months away.
He made the comments while rejecting Hamas' latest proposed ceasefire terms. The BBC has been told that negotiators for Hamas are leaving the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and that talks between the two sides are currently on hold.
Most people in Rafah live in tents after being displaced by fighting in other parts of Gaza.
Rafah is the only crossing point between Gaza and Egypt.
On Friday, top EU diplomat Joseph Borrell wrote in a post on social media: “Reports of an Israeli military attack on Rafah are alarming. It will have catastrophic consequences, worsening an already dire humanitarian situation and an unbearable civilian toll.”
Earlier in the week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a “humanitarian nightmare” in the city. His spokesman Stéphane Dujarric later added: “We are very concerned about the fate of civilians in Rafah… It is clear that people need to be protected, but we do not want to see any kind of forced displacement, forced displacement. of people”.
Meanwhile, the UN for Palestinian refugees The head of the agency, UNRWA, said there was a “growing sense of anxiety and panic in Rafah”.
“People have absolutely no idea where to go after Rafa,” Filipe Lazzarini told reporters in Jerusalem.
“Any large-scale military action among these people will only lead to an additional layer of unending tragedy.”
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza on Friday killed at least 15 people, including eight in Rafah, officials from the Hamas-run health ministry said. Israel had no immediate comment.
Garda al-Kourd, a mother of two, said she was displaced six times during the war, saying she expected an Israeli attack but hoped there would be a ceasefire before it happened.
“If they come to Rafah, it will be the end for us, like we are waiting to die. We have nowhere else to go,” he told the BBC from a relative's house in the town, where he lives with 20 others. .
Speaking on Thursday, US President Joe Biden said Israel's actions in Gaza were “overwhelming”, without directly referring to Rafa. He used the same “up” phrase earlier in the week to refer to Hamas' response to a proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “When the Israeli military is engaged in operations there or elsewhere, it has a special obligation to ensure that they factor in the protection of innocent civilian lives.”
“Military action now would be a disaster for those people and that is not something we support,” he said.
According to Israeli officials, more than 1,200 people were killed during Hamas attacks in southern Israel on October 7.
According to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, Israel's retaliatory war has killed more than 27,900 Palestinians and wounded at least 67,000.