Israeli air strikes killed 17 people in Rafah on the Gaza border overnight, medics said on Saturday, as over a million Palestinians crammed into the city awaited a full-scale offensive with the rest of the enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.
Four months into the war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy battalions it says are deployed there.
The Israeli military said the air force killed two Hamas operatives in Rafah on Saturday. Israel's military ordered civilians to flee south before previous assaults on Gaza's cities, but now there is no obvious place to go and aid agencies have said many people could die.
"Any Israeli incursion in Rafah means massacres, means destruction. People are filling every inch of the city and we have nowhere to go," said Rezik Salah, 35, who fled from Gaza City for Rafah with his wife and two children early in the war. A possible assault on Rafah prompted international concern, including posts on social media from British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot.
"Deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah - over half of Gaza’s population are sheltering in the area. The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire," Cameron said on X.
"Hard to see how large-scale military operations in such a densely populated area would not lead to many civilian casualties and a bigger humanitarian catastrophe. This is unjustifiable," Bruins Slot said.
The conflict has threatened to spread across the Middle East, with Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah regularly trading fire, and flare-ups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
On Friday night an airstrike on a Rafah house killed 11 people and wounded dozens and a second strike killed six people in another house, medical officials said. Earlier on Saturday two separate Israeli airstrikes killed five members of the police force in Rafah, including a senior officer, Hamas and medics said.