But while Palestinians like Shehada saw Rafah as a last refuge, with at least basic infrastructure and aid present, Israel made clear this week that it views the city on the Egyptian border as a last remaining stronghold for Hamas.
“It is impossible to achieve the war goal of eliminating Hamas and leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” Netanyahu’s office said Friday. It said he had ordered the military to draw up “a dual plan for both the evacuation of the population and the dismantling of the battalions.”
His comments follow rare public pushback from the U.S., Israel’s closest ally.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that its response in Gaza “has been over the top.”
John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, said that a ground offensive in Rafah is “not something we would support.” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said that going ahead with such an offensive “with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced Netanyahu’s call for an evacuation plan and said a ground assault into Rafah would pose “a real threat and a dangerous prelude to implementing the policy of displacing our people.”
Rafah was home to an estimated 250,000 people before the war, but has since been “stretched beyond its limits,” according to humanitarian officials, as Palestinians heeding Israeli evacuation calls and chasing relative safety fled to the city.
Local health officials say more than 27,900 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its military campaign in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack, which Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people.
‘Already a disaster’
Any attempt to evacuate from the overcrowded city would be neither feasible nor safe, said Andrea De Domenico, who heads the U.N. humanitarian agency responsible for the Palestinian territories.
“People are everywhere. This congestion not only makes it difficult for people to move but also hampers any potential evacuation efforts, and humanitarian operations,” she said in a statement from Gaza.
Satellite imagery shows the sprawling growth of makeshift shelters and tents that have transformed the enclave’s southernmost city over the past two months.