Israeli military orders civilians to evacuate eastern Rafah as airstrikes escalate

Hours after the evacuation order, President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu and 'reiterated his clear position on Rafah,' according to a White House statement.
Last Updated : 07 May 2024, 00:59 IST
Last Updated : 07 May 2024, 00:59 IST

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Israeli warplanes pounded targets in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on Monday as its military told about 110,000 people sheltering there to leave, heightening fears among Palestinians that Israel was inching closer to invading the city in defiance of international pressure.

On Monday night, the Israeli military said it was “conducting targeted strikes against Hamas terror targets in eastern Rafah.”

Earlier in the day, the military dropped leaflets in eastern Rafah ordering people to evacuate temporarily to what it described as a humanitarian zone, and said it would also notify people by text messages, phone calls and broadcasts in Arabic. An Israeli military spokesperson would not say if or when troops would enter the city, but described the evacuation as “part of plans to dismantle Hamas” and to bring back hostages taken on Oct. 7.

Thousands of people were leaving the city, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which said Monday that there had been “escalating Israeli airstrikes” in areas east of Rafah. The extent of any casualties was not immediately clear.

Israel’s closest allies, including the United States, have been urging it not to mount a large ground operation in Rafah, saying it would take a heavy toll on civilians, more than 1 million of whom have crammed into the city to escape fighting elsewhere. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected those calls, saying Israel needs to defend itself and eliminate Hamas, which attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

Hours after the evacuation order, President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Netanyahu and “reiterated his clear position on Rafah,” according to a White House statement.

The order came a day after officials said months of talks over a cease-fire and the release of hostages had hit an impasse, with Israel and Hamas still sharply at odds over the duration of any truce. Hamas wants a permanent cease-fire while Netanyahu has expressed openness to only a temporary halt in the fighting and has said Israel would invade Rafah with or without an agreement.

Salama Marouf, the head of the Hamas-run Gaza government media office, said in a statement Monday that the evacuation order showed that Israel “went into truce negotiations deceptively without abandoning the idea of ​​a broad aggression against Rafah.” He said the announcement was “a real test of the seriousness” of the countries that had warned against an invasion of the city.

On Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his promises to destroy Hamas, vowing in English, in a speech marking Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, that Israel “will defeat our genocidal enemies.”

The Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, said a rocket attack Sunday by the armed wing of Hamas, which killed four Israeli soldiers near the Kerem Shalom border crossing, was a “violent reminder” of the group’s presence in Rafah. The attack came from an area near the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and prompted Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, to post on social media: “Netanyahu, go to Rafah now!”

About two weeks ago, Israeli authorities said that before they moved on Rafah, they would expand a humanitarian zone in nearby Muwasi where civilians could shelter. On Monday, the Israeli military said that it had done so, and that the zone had field hospitals, tents and larger supplies of food, water and medicine.

The military is not calling for a “wide-scale evacuation of Rafah,” Shoshani told reporters Monday. “This is a very specific scoped operation at the moment to move people out of harm’s way.”

Israel has told civilians in many parts of Gaza to evacuate from their homes since the start of the war, but many of the places Israel said would be safe for Palestinians were also hit by airstrikes. And previous Israeli evacuation orders offer no clear clues about when a ground operation in Rafah might start.

Israel began instructing civilians to leave northern Gaza and move south for their own safety around two weeks before its invasion began Oct. 27. Then, in December, Israel urged civilians in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, to move just days before launching an invasion of that city.

In both cases, civilians reported that obeying the orders was fraught with peril, leaving them with agonizing decisions and often no safe options. Northern Gaza was under heavy bombardment in the weeks before the invasion, while people in Khan Younis said the evacuation orders were inadequately communicated and sometimes left them with just hours to escape.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said Monday it would not evacuate its staff from Rafah and would continue to provide humanitarian aid to those who have taken refuge there.

“An Israeli military offensive will lead to an additional layer of an already unbearable tragedy for the people in Gaza,” Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s commissioner general, said on social media.

Published 07 May 2024, 00:59 IST

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