Rafah (Gaza Strip) | Israel bombed targets in overcrowded Rafah early Friday, hours after Biden administration officials warned Israel against expanding its Gaza ground offensive to the southern city where more than half of the territory's 2.3 million people have sought refuge.
Airstrikes overnight and into Friday hit two residential buildings in Rafah, killing eight Palestinians, and a third strike targeted a kindergarten-turned-shelter for the displaced in central Gaza, killing at least four people, according to hospital officials and AP journalists who saw bodies arriving at hospitals.
U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday that Israel's conduct in the war, ignited by a deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack, is “over the top,” the harshest U.S. criticism yet of its close ally and an expression of concern about a soaring civilian death toll in Gaza.
Israel's stated intentions to expand its ground offensive to Rafah also prompted an unusual public backlash in Washington.
“We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday. Going ahead with such an offensive now, “with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster.” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, said an Israel ground offensive in Rafah is “not something we would support.” The comments signaled intensifying U.S. friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed a message of “total victory” in the war this week, at a time when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel to press for a cease-fire deal in exchange for the release of dozens of Hamas-held hostages.
With the war now in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces are still focusing on the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said Rafah will be next, creating panic among hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Netanyahu's words have also alarmed Egypt which has said that any ground operation in the Rafah area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel. The mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border is also the main entry point for humanitarian aid.
Shortly after midnight Friday, a residential building was struck near Rafah's Kuwaiti Hospital, killing five people from the al-Sayed family, including three children and a woman. A second Rafah strike killed three more people.
In the central area of Gaza, a kindergarten-turned-shelter was bombed, leaving four dead and 30 wounded, most of them women and children. Witnesses said those in the shelter were sleeping when the building was struck.
A woman, carrying a small girl in her arms, shouted as she arrived at the local Al Aqsa Martyrs' Hospital: “There was a sudden explosion. What can we do? This is the work of the coward Zionist enemy that chooses innocent civilians. This girl is firing rockets at the Jews? May God help us.” Some of the wounded children were treated while lying on the floor.
More than half of Gaza's population has fled to Rafah, heeding Israeli evacuation orders ahead of the military's continuously expanding ground offensive. Evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of the besieged territory, though an estimated 300,000 Palestinians remain in the northern half of Gaza, which civilians were ordered to leave early on in the war.
Even in areas of refuge, such as Rafah, Israel routinely launches air strikes against what it says are Hamas targets. It holds the militant group responsible for civilian casualties because it operates from civilian areas.
WORKING FOR A CEASE-FIRE
Israel's 4-month-old air and ground offensive — among the most destructive in recent history — has killed over 27,700 Palestinians, driven most people from their homes and pushed a quarter of the population toward starvation.
Biden has said said he continues to work “tirelessly” to press Israel and Hamas to agree on an extended pause in fighting. A truce would be linked to the release of dozens of hostages, out of some 250 seized Oct. 7, and still believed to be in Hamas captivity.
Netanyahu has rejected Hamas' demands for a hostage deal, which includes an end to the war and the release of hundreds of veteran Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israel for deadly attacks carried out as part of the long-running conflict. Netanyahu dismissed Hamas' demands as delusional, even as Blinken said he believes continued negotiations, through mediators Egypt and Qatar, are possible.
Israel's war goals appear increasingly elusive, as Hamas reemerges in parts of northern Gaza, which was the first target of the offensive and has seen widespread destruction. Israel has only rescued one hostage, while Hamas says several have been killed in airstrikes or failed rescue missions.