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Israel bomb Gaza’s crowded Rafah as the US warns Netanyahu against sending in troops

ISRAELI forces bombed targets in Rafah early yesterday, hours after US officials had warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government against extending its Gaza ground offensive to the overcrowded southern city.

Mr Netanyahu said that he had ordered the military to prepare a plan for the evacuation of Rafah in the run-up to an expected ground invasion.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s Health Ministry said the Palestinian death toll had now passed 27,840, mostly women and children.

More than half of the coastal enclave’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge in the Rafah area after Israel told them to move there from the north of the besieged territory.

Air strikes hit two residential buildings there, killing eight Palestinians, and a third strike targeted a kindergarten-turned-shelter for the displaced in central Gaza, killing at least four people, according to hospital officials.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Israel’s conduct in the war, ignited by a deadly Hamas attack on October 7, was “over the top.” This was the harshest US criticism yet of Washington’s close ally and an expression of concern about a soaring civilian death toll in Gaza.

Israel’s aim to expand its ground offensive to Rafah also prompted an unusual public backlash in the US capital.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said an Israel ground offensive in Rafah was “not something we would support.”

The comments laid bare intensifying friction between the US and Mr Netanyahu, who pushed a message of seeking “total victory” in the war this week while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel to press for a ceasefire deal in exchange for the release of dozens of hostages held by Hamas.

With the war now in its fifth month, Israeli ground forces have been focusing on the city of Khan Younis, just north of Rafah.

But Mr Netanyahu’s intentions have created panic among hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

His words have also alarmed Egypt,which has said that any ground operation in the Rafah area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel. 

The mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border is also the main entry point for humanitarian supplies.

International aid organisations have warned that any major operation in Rafah would compound what is already a humanitarian catastrophe.

Bob Kitchen of the International Rescue Committee said: “There will no longer be a single ‘safe’ area for Palestinians to go to.

“If they aren’t killed in the fighting, Palestinian children, women and men will be at risk of dying by starvation or disease.”

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