Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has ordered the military to prepare a plan to evacuate the population of Rafah ahead of an expected Israeli invasion of the southern Gaza city.
Mr Netanyahu made the announcement on Friday following international criticism of Israel’s plan to invade the crowded town on Egypt’s border.
Israel says Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold and it needs to send in troops to complete its war plan against the Islamic militant group.
But an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have crammed into the city, living with relatives, in shelters or in sprawling tent camps after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza.
According to the United Nations, the city’s pre-war population was roughly 280,000.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said: “It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.
“On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”
Mr Netanyahu said on Friday that a “massive operation” is needed in Rafah.
His office added that Mr Netanyahu had ordered the military and security officials to come up with a “combined plan” that includes both a mass evacuation of civilians and the destruction of Hamas’ forces in the town.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Friday that the overall Palestinian death toll is now approaching 28,000, with about two-thirds women and children. The count does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Roughly 80% of Gaza’s population has been displaced, and the territory has plunged into a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medical services.
Mr Netanyahu has largely rebuffed international criticism of the civilian death toll, saying that Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by operating and hiding in residential areas.
However, that criticism has grown in recent days as Netanyahu and other leaders vow to move into Rafah.
US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Israel’s conduct in the war, ignited by a deadly October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, is “over the top,” the harshest US criticism yet of its close ally and an expression of concern about a soaring civilian death toll in Gaza.
Earlier Friday, Israel bombed targets in Rafah. The attack took place hours after Biden administration officials and aid agencies warned Israel against expanding its Gaza ground offensive to the town 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, while two other sites were bombed in central Gaza, including one that damaged a kindergarten-turned-shelter for displaced Palestinians.
Twenty-two people were killed, according to AP journalists who saw the bodies arriving at hospitals.