© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Palestinians wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 16, 2024. REUTERS/Ib
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
DOHA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Trapped in and around Rafah amid fears of a “bloodbath,” more than 1 million terrified Palestinians waited for Israel to complete a plan to evacuate them and launch an assault against Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza city.
Aid agencies warned that large numbers of civilians could die in the Israeli offensive and the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency said it did not know how long it could work “in such a high risk operation.”
“There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah,” said Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA agency. “People have no idea where to go.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Friday announced that the military was ordered to develop a plan “for evacuating the population and destroying” four Hamas battalions that it said were deployed in Rafah.
Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating the Islamist militants who rule Gaza while those units remain, it said.
The statement, issued two days after Netanyahu rejected a Hamas ceasefire proposal that included the release of hostages held by the Palestinian militants, gave no further details.
Washington, Israel’s main supporter, said it would not back an assault that did not protect civilians, and had briefed Israel on a new U.S. national security memorandum reminding countries receiving U.S. arms to adhere to international law.
More than a million people driven southwards by more than four months of Israeli bombing of Gaza are packed into Rafah and surrounding areas on the coastal enclave’s border with Egypt, which has reinforced the frontier, fearing an exodus.
Doctors and aid workers are struggling to supply even basic aid to Palestinians sheltering around Rafah. Many are trapped against a border fence with Egypt and living in makeshift tents.
Israeli forces have been moving southwards towards the city after first storming northern Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel by Hamas gunmen.
The United Nations said Palestinian civilians in Rafah require protection, but there should be no forced mass displacement, which is barred by international law.
“No war can be allowed in a gigantic refugee camp,” said…