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Article: Israel intensifies airstrikes on Gaza's Rafah before ground operation

Israel intensifies airstrikes on Gaza's Rafah before ground operation

Israel intensifies airstrikes on Gaza's Rafah before ground operation

PHOTO CAPTION: Illustrative photo — A F-15 fighter jet flies during a graduation ceremony for Israeli Air Force pilots at Hatzerim Airbase, in southern Israel, June 29, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen



By Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO (Reuters) -Israel stepped up airstrikes on Rafah overnight after saying it would evacuate civilians from the southern Gazan city and launch an all-out assault despite allies' warnings this could cause mass casualties.

Medics in the besieged Palestinian enclave reported five Israeli airstrikes on Rafah early on Thursday that hit at least three houses, killing at least six people including a local journalist.

In the seventh month of a devastating air and ground war against the Gaza Strip's ruling Islamist group Hamas, Israeli forces also resumed bombarding northern and central areas of the enclave, as well as east of Khan Younis in the south.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet was holding meetings "to discuss how to destroy the last vestiges, the last quarter of Hamas' battalions, in Rafah and elsewhere," government spokesperson David Mencer said.

He declined to say when or whether the classified forum might give a green light for a ground operation in Rafah.

Israeli warplanes had hammered the north for a second day on Wednesday, shattering weeks of comparative calm there.

The war, now in its seventh month, has killed at least 34,305 Palestinians, Gaza health authorities said on Thursday. The offensive has laid to waste much of the densely populated and widely urbanised enclave, displacing most of its 2.3 million people and leaving many with little food, water or medical care.

Israel has said it will eradicate Hamas following the rampage by gunmen from the militant group on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. Iranian-backed Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Escalating Israeli warnings about invading Rafah, the last refuge for around a million civilians who fled Israeli forces further north earlier in the war, have nudged some families to leave for the nearby al-Mawasi coastal area or try to make their way to points further north, residents and witnesses said.

But the number of displaced people departing Rafah, abutting Gaza's southern border with Egypt, remained small. Many were confused over where they should go, saying their experience over the past 200 days of war had taught them that no place was genuinely safe.

Mohammad Nasser, 34, a father-of-three, said he had left Rafah two weeks ago and now lived in a shelter in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza to avoid being caught by surprise by an Israeli invasion and unable to escape.

"We escape from one trap into another, searching for places Israel calls safe before they bomb us there. It is like the rat and trap game," he told Reuters via a chat app.

"We are trying to adapt to the new reality, hoping it will become better, but I doubt it will."

A senior Israeli defence official said on Wednesday Israel was poised to evacuate civilians before its attack on Rafah and had bought 40,000 tents that could house 10-12 people each.

Satellite images of Mawasi between Rafah, Khan Younis and the sea, an area of sand beaches and fields and stretching only around 5 by 3 km (three by two miles), showed significant camp settlements erected over the past two weeks.


Meanwhile, a Palestinian civil defence team called on the United Nations to investigate what it said were war crimes at a Gaza hospital, saying nearly 400 bodies were recovered from mass graves after Israeli soldiers left the complex in Khan Younis.

The Israeli military said allegations by Palestinian authorities that its forces had buried the bodies were "baseless and unfounded".

In the north, Israeli forces continued to pound Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun, Jabalia and Zeitoun, with some residents saying Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were fighting Israeli ground forces with anti-tank rockets, mortar bombs and sniper fire.

The Palestine Telecommunications Company said Internet services had again been cut off in central and southern Gaza on Thursday, blaming Israeli military operations.

Such outages have compounded the obstacles confronting efforts to get emergency aid to stricken civilians and provide medical care at the few centres not yet shattered by fighting.

After an abrupt Israeli military pullback at the start of April, Palestinians at both ends of narrow, coastal Gaza were again fleeing for their lives this week from bombing they described as some of the war's worst.

An aid worker who was part of Belgium's development efforts in Gaza died in one Israeli strike, the Belgian government said on Thursday, adding it was summoning the Israeli ambassador over the incident.

Western countries, including the United States, have pleaded with Israel to hold back from attacking the city, saying this could cause a humanitarian disaster given the presence of many displaced people with only rudimentary shelter and little food or access to medical care.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; writing by Mark Heinrich; editing by Alex Richardson and Timothy Heritage)



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