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Israel Orders New Evacuations in Gaza’s Last Refuge of Rafah as it Expands Military Offensive

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel ordered new evacuations in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah on Saturday, forcing tens of thousands more people to move as it prepares to expand its military operation closer to the heavily populated central area, in defiance of growing pressure from close ally the United States and others.

Israel’s military also said it was moving into an area of devastated northern Gaza where it asserted that the Hamas militant group has regrouped.

Israel has now evacuated the eastern third of Rafah, which is considered the last refuge in Gaza. The United Nations and others have warned that Israel’s planned full-scale Rafah invasion would cripple humanitarian operations and cause a disastrous surge in civilian casualties. Rafah borders Egypt near the main aid entry points, which already have been affected. Israeli troops have captured the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, forcing it to shut down.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he will not provide offensive weapons to Israel for Rafah. On Friday the U.S. said there was “reasonable” evidence that Israel had breached international law protecting civilians in the way it conducted its war against Hamas — the strongest statement yet that the Biden administration has made on the matter.

In response to the U.S. report, Ophir Falk, foreign policy adviser to Israel’s prime minister, told the AP that Israel acts in compliance with the laws of armed conflict and the army takes extensive measures to avert civilian casualties, including alerting people to military operations via phone calls and text messages.

More than 1.4 million Palestinians — half of Gaza’s population — have been sheltering in Rafah, most after fleeing Israel’s offensives elsewhere. The evacuations are forcing people to return north where areas are devastated from previous Israeli attacks. Aid agencies estimate that 110,000 had done so before Saturday’s order, which adds a further 40,000.

“What should we do here? Do we wait until we all die on top of each other? So we’ve decided to leave. It’s better,” said Rafah resident Hanan al-Satari as people rushed to load mattresses, water tanks and other belongings onto vehicles.

“The Israeli army does not have a safe area in Gaza. They target everything,” said Abu Yusuf al-Deiri, earlier displaced from Gaza City.

Many people have been displaced multiple times, and there are few places left to go. Some fleeing fighting earlier in the week erected new tent camps in the city of Khan Younis — half destroyed in an earlier Israeli offensive — and the city of Deir al-Balah, straining infrastructure.

Some Palestinians are being sent to what Israel has called humanitarian safe zones along the Muwasi coastal strip in Gaza. But the zone is already packed with about 450,000 people in squalid conditions, with the garbage-strewn camp lacking basic facilities.

Georgios Petropoulos, an official with the U.N. humanitarian agency in Rafah, said aid workers had no supplies to help people set up in new locations. “We simply have no tents, we have no blankets, no bedding, none of the items that you would expect a population on the move to be able to get from the humanitarian system,” he said.

The World Food Program had warned that it would run out of food for distribution in southern Gaza by Saturday, Petropoulos said. Aid groups have said fuel will also be depleted soon, forcing hospitals to shut down critical operations and halting trucks delivering aid across south and central Gaza.

Heavy fighting is also underway in northern Gaza, where Hamas appeared to have regrouped in an area where Israel has launched assaults. Israeli Army spokesman Avichay Adraee told Palestinians in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya and surrounding areas to leave their homes and head to shelters in the west of Gaza City, warning that people were in “a dangerous combat zone” and that Israel would strike with “great force.”

Northern Gaza was the first target of Israel’s ground offensive launched after Hamas and other militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking another 250 hostage. They are still holding some 100 captives and the remains of more than 30.

Israel said late last year it had mostly dismantled Hamas in northern Gaza.

The U.N. agency supporting people in Gaza, known as UNRWA, said about 300,000 people have been affected by evacuation orders in Rafah and Jabaliya, but the numbers could likely be more as they are very built-up areas.

“We’re extremely concerned that these evacuation orders have come both towards central Rafah and Jabaliya,” Louise Wateridge, UNRWA spokesperson in Rafah, told The Associated Press.

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensives have killed more than 34,800 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing it of embedding in densely populated residential areas.

At least 19 people, including eight women and eight children, were killed overnight in central Gaza in strikes that hit the areas of Zawaida, Maghazi and Deir al Balah, according to Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al Balah and an AP journalist who counted the bodies.

Another round of cease-fire talks in Cairo ended earlier this week without a breakthrough.

___

Mednick reported from Tel Aviv and Magdy reported from Cairo. Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed.

 

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