Palestinians in Rafah fear imminent ground offensive as international community warn Israel must have humanitarian plan for refugees

Palestinians inspect the damage to residential buildings in Rafah where two hostages were reportedly held before being rescued by Israeli security forces (Fatima Shbair/AP)
Palestinians inspect the damage to residential buildings where two Israeli hostages were reportedly held before being rescued during an operation by Israeli security forces in Rafah. PICTURE: Fatima Shbair/AP (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Palestinians in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah are fearful of an imminent ground offensive by Israeli troops following strikes in the area where around 1.5 million people are sheltering.

The city, which is close to Gaza’s border with Egypt, saw a night of air strikes that killed at least 67 people as Israeli soldiers rescued two hostages during a raid on a building.

The raid came after Tánaiste and foreign affairs minister Micheál Martin warned that a military operation in Rafah would “entail grave violations of international humanitarian law” as the city has become “one of the largest and most overcrowded refugee camps in the world”.

In signs that international patience with Israel is wearing thin, U.S National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Israel has heard “loud and clear” that it must have a humanitarian plan for refugees in Rafah.

Palestinians have fled to the city, the southern-most in the Gaza Strip, following Israel’s ground invasion that began in October following attacks by Hamas gunmen in Israeli towns close to the Gaza border.

Refugees hemmed into the city and living in sprawling camps fear an increased offensive following the strikes, as Israel has claimed Rafah is the last remaining stronghold of Hamas in Gaza.

Israel says around 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity after dozens were freed during a ceasefire in November.

Hamas also holds the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed during the attacks on October 7 or died in captivity.

The Israeli government has made freeing the hostages a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the military to prepare to evacuate civilians from Rafah ahead of an expected ground offensive, but Micheál Martin warned it was “absolutely clear that ordering the evacuation of 1.5 million people, who have nowhere safe to go, risks mass forced displacement”.

Palestinians search for survivors in Rafah (Hatem Ali/AP)
Palestinians search for survivors in Rafah. PICTURE: Hatem Ali/AP (Hatem Ali/AP)

He added: “This can not be allowed to happen. All countries, including all EU Member States, must demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

“There can be no further equivocation.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on the US among other countries to stop providing weapons instead of simply demanding that the two sides in the war in Gaza stop killing civilians.

“If you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed,” Mr Borrell told reporters in Brussels after talks with the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

UK foreign secretary Lord Cameron warned Israel to “stop and think seriously” before further action in Rafah, adding: “The priority in Gaza must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, such that we can then make progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said his office has “repeatedly warned against actions that violate the laws of war”.

“The prospect of such an operation into Rafah, as circumstances stand, risks further atrocity crimes,” he said.