GAZA STRIP, Feb 11 (AFP/AP): Hamas on Sunday warned that any Israeli offensive in Gaza's far-southern city of Rafah would threaten talks about the release of hostages seized in the October 7 attacks.
"Any attack by the occupation army on the city of Rafah would undermine the exchange negotiations," the Palestinian militants said as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to extend military operations.
Gaza mediators, others warn
Israel of disaster if Rafah
Israel's neighbors and key mediators warned Saturday of disaster and repercussions if its military launches a ground invasion in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, where Israel says remaining Hamas strongholds are located - along with over half the besieged territory's population.
Israeli airstrikes killed at least 44 Palestinians - including more than a dozen children - in Rafah, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he asked the military to plan for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people ahead of an invasion. He gave no details or timeline.
The announcement set off panic. More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, which borders Egypt. Many fled there after following Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the territory following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war. It's not clear where they could go next.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have "disastrous consequences," and asserted that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land. Egypt has warned that any movement of Palestinians into Egypt would threaten the four-decade-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Another mediator, Qatar, also warned of disaster, and Saudi Arabia warned of "very serious repercussions." There's even increasing friction between Netanyahu and the United States, whose officials have said a Rafah invasion with no plan for civilians there would lead to disaster.
"The people in Gaza cannot disappear into thin air," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on X, adding that an Israeli offensive on Rafah would be a "humanitarian catastrophe in the making."
Netanyahu has previously said it is impossible to eliminate Hamas while leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah.
Despite the wave of criticism, he said he was determined to go ahead.
"Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there," he told ABC News "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" in comments that aired Saturday.
When asked where the civilians should go, Netanyahu said: "You know, the areas that we've cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But we are working out a detailed plan to do so."
Israel has carried out almost daily airstrikes in Rafah, a rare entry point for Gaza's badly needed food and medical supplies, during its current ground combat in Khan Younis just to the north.
Overnight into Saturday, three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah area killed 28 people, according to a health official and Associated Press journalists who saw bodies arriving at hospitals. Each strike killed multiple members of a family, including a total of 10 children, the youngest 3 months old.
Fadel al-Ghannam said one strike tore his loved ones to shreds. He lost his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. He fears even worse with a ground invasion of Rafah, and said the world's silence has enabled Israel to proceed.
Later on Saturday, an Israeli airstrike on a home in Rafah killed at least 11 people, including three children, according to Ahmed al-Soufi, head of Rafah municipality.
"This is what Netanyahu targets - the civilians," said a neighbor, Samir Abu Loulya. Two other strikes in Rafah killed two policemen and three senior officers in the civil police, according to city officials.
In Khan Younis, Israeli forces opened fire at Nasser Hospital, the area's largest, killing at least two people and wounding five, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders. Israeli tanks reached the hospital gates Saturday morning, Ahmed Maghrabi, a physician there, said in a Facebook post.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said hospital staff are no longer able to move between buildings because of the intense fire. He said 450 patients and 10,000 displaced people are sheltering there.
The Israeli military said troops were not operating inside the hospital but called the surrounding area "an active combat zone."
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