Israel says Rafah assault looms, as massive Gaza air strikes end weeks of relative calm

Israeli warplanes pounded the northern Gaza strip for a second day on Wednesday in a fierce assault that has shattered weeks of comparative calm, and Israel said it was moving forward with plans for an all-out assault on Rafah in the south.

After weeks of reduced fighting following an abrupt Israeli pullback at the start of this month, Palestinians at both ends of the Gaza Strip were again fleeing for their lives from bombing they described as some of the war’s worst.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said Israel was “moving ahead” with its plans for a ground operation on Rafah but gave no timeline.

Western countries, including Israel’s closest ally the United States, have pleaded with it to hold back from attacking the city on Gaza’s southern edge, which is sheltering more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.

Children sit in a car boot in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

A senior Israeli defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was poised to evacuate civilians ahead of its attack and had bought 40,000 tents that could house 10 to 12 people each. All that remained was for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the order.

Displaced people sheltering in Rafah are weighing whether to flee again. Tamer Al-Burai, who fled from Gaza City and is now living in Rafah in a cluster of tents with seven households of extended family, said the entire group was heading for the coast of Khan Younis to the north to try to find a new spot “since Israel sounds more serious in its threats this time”.

“We have women, children, elderly and sick people, who may face problems escaping should the invasion happen suddenly,” he said over a chat app.

“Invasions happen under heavy fire and people die as they leave. So we decided we should leave earlier.”

Aya, 30, who has been sheltering with her family in a school, said they were afraid to stay but did not know where was safe. She had heard of families who fled to Khan Younis but whose tents caught fire when shells crashed nearby: “Where do we go?”

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At the opposite end of the Gaza Strip, the city of Beit Lahiya came under massive shelling for a second day on Wednesday, a day after the Israeli military ordered residents out of four districts declared a “dangerous combat zone”.

Israel said its operations there targeted areas from where the armed wing of Hamas-aligned Islamic Jihad had fired rockets at two Israeli border settlements on Tuesday.

Israel has said it will eradicate Hamas following the militant group’s rampage in southern Israel on October 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 were taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

The war, now in its seventh month, has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, who say thousands more are feared buried in rubble.

The offensive has laid to waste much of the enclave, displacing most of its 2.3 million people and creating a humanitarian crisis.

In the past 24 hours, Israeli strikes have killed at least 79 Palestinians and wounded 86, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Residents in the north, many of whom have started to return to homes abandoned in the first phase of the war, described some of the most intense bombing since the war’s early weeks.

“We don’t know why this is all happening. Is it because we returned home and we finally got some aid through after months of starvation, and the Israelis didn’t like that?” said Mohammad Jamal, 29, a resident of Gaza City, near Zeitoun, one of Gaza’s oldest suburbs.

“It is as if the war started again. As if it is just happening, they burned up the place,” he said via a chat app.

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Medics said an Israeli air strike against a group of people in Nasser Street in the heart of Gaza City had killed three people and wounded others.

Palestinian journalist Amena Hmaid and one of her children were killed in an Israeli air strike on Gaza City’s Beach refugee camp, her husband said.

In other parts of Gaza, two people were killed in a strike on a house in Rafah, four were killed when a missile hit a group standing outside a supermarket in the Al-Nuseirat refugee camp and one was killed in a strike on a house in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza, Palestinian health officials said.

In the Nasser hospital complex, the main medical facility in the south, authorities said they had recovered more bodies from a mass grave found there, taking the total to 334.

Palestinians say Israeli troops buried corpses there with bulldozers to cover up crimes. The Israeli military denies this although it says its troops dug up some bodies at the site and reburied them after testing to make sure no hostages were there.

Health workers unearth bodies found at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

Israel has been threatening since February to launch an all-out assault on Rafah, where it says thousands of Hamas fighters and many of the movement’s leaders are sheltering.

Washington has called on its ally to hold off, and says it thinks there are other ways Israel could meet its military objectives.

But there are increasing signs that Israeli officials are serious about pressing ahead with a plan to evacuate civilians so they can storm the city.

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Video circulating online appeared to show rows of square white tents going up in Khan Younis, a city some 5km (3 miles) from Rafah.

Reuters could not verify the video but reviewed images from satellite company Maxar Technologies which showed tent camps on Khan Younis land that had been vacant weeks ago.

An Israeli government source said Netanyahu’s war cabinet planned to meet in the coming two weeks to authorise civilian evacuations, expected to take around a month.



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