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Israel-Hamas war: Palestinians ordered to evacuate parts of Rafah as assault looms

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli army ordered tens of thousands of Palestinians to return Monday Rafah, town in southern Gaza to begin evacuating the area, signaling that a long-promised ground invasion there may be imminent.

The announcement complicates last-ditch efforts by international mediators, including the CIA director, to negotiate a ceasefire. The militant group Hamas and Qatar, a key mediator, have warned that invading Rafah – along the border with Egypt – could derail negotiations, and the United States has repeatedly urged Israel not to proceed to this invasion.

However, Israel has described Rafah as the last Hamas stronghold after seven months of warand its leaders have repeatedly said the invasion is necessary to defeat the Islamic militant group.

Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, an army spokesman, said about 100,000 people had been ordered to move to a nearby Israeli-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi. He said Israel was preparing a “limited-scope operation” and would not say whether it was the start of a broader invasion of the city. But after October 7 and unprecedented attack on southern Israel by HamasIsrael has not officially announced the launch of a ground invasion which continues to this day.

Overnight, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that Israel had no choice but to act in Rafah. On Sunday, Hamas carried out a deadly rocket attack from the Rafah area, killing four Israeli soldiers.

Shoshani said Israel had published a map of the evacuation zone and orders were issued through air-dropped leaflets, text messages and radio broadcasts. He said Israel had extended humanitarian aid to Muwasi, including providing field hospitals, tents, food and water.

The Israeli military said on social platform X that it would act with “extreme force” against the militants and urged people to evacuate immediately for their safety.

Israel’s plan to invade Rafah has triggered a global alarm due to the potential risk of harm to more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there.

Around 1.4 million Palestinians – more than half of Gaza’s population – are crowded into the city and its surrounding areas. Most of them fled their homes elsewhere in the territory to escape the Israeli onslaught and now face a heartbreaking new decision or the danger of remaining under renewed assault. They live in overcrowded tent camps, overflowing UN shelters or overcrowded apartments, and rely on international aid for food, with sanitation systems and medical infrastructure crippled.

The United Nations agency that has helped millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for decades, known as UNRWA, warned Monday of the devastating consequences of a Rafah offensive, including more suffering and deaths among civilians. The agency said it would not leave but would remain in Rafah as long as possible to continue providing lifesaving assistance.

Egypt’s Rafah terminal, the main transfer point for aid to Gaza, is in the evacuation zone. The crossing remained open Monday after the Israeli order.

But even as the United States, Egypt and Qatar push for a ceasefire deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated last week that the army would move toward the city “with or without an agreement” to achieve its goal of destroying the city. Hamas militant group.

On Monday, Netanyahu accused Hamas of “torpedoing” the hostage deal and not backing down from its “extreme demands,” while vowing to prevent the militants from regaining control of Gaza. In a fiery speech Sunday evening marking the country’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, he rejected international pressure to end the war, saying that “if Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will be alone.”

A Hamas official told The Associated Press that Israel was trying to pressure the group to make concessions on the ceasefire, but would not change its demands. Hamas wants a complete end to the war, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the eventual reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in exchange for Israeli hostages held by the militants.

Shoshani would not say whether the upcoming Rafah operation is a response to Sunday’s Hamas attack that forced the closure of Israel’s key border crossing for aid. He said this would not affect the amount of aid entering Gaza since other crossing points remain operational.

However, he would not comment on US warnings not to invade and did not specify whether Monday’s intervention the evacuation order was coordinated with Egypt.

Egypt, Israel’s strategic partner, has said an Israeli military seizure of the Gaza-Egypt border – which is supposed to be demilitarized – or any move to push Palestinians towards Egypt would threaten its border. four-decade-old peace treaty with Israel.

In Rafah, residents received leaflets in Arabic on Monday morning detailing which neighborhoods had to leave and where humanitarian zones had expanded. The leaflets said humanitarian services would extend from Deir al Balah in the north to the center of the town of Khan Younis in the middle of the Gaza Strip.

“Anyone who is near (militant) organizations puts themselves and their family members in danger. For your safety, (the army) asks you to evacuate immediately to the expanded humanitarian zone,” we read.

Palestinians in Rafah said people gathered to discuss their options after receiving the flyers. Most said they did not want to travel alone and preferred to travel in groups.

“There are so many people here who are displaced and now they have to move again, but no one wants to stay here, it’s not safe,” Nidal Alzaanin told The Associated Press by telephone.

A father of five, Alzaanin works for an international aid group and was displaced from Beit Hanoun in the north to Rafah at the start of the war. He said people have been worried since Israeli troops fired on Palestinians as they moved during previous evacuation orders.

Alzaanin said he has packed his documents and bags, but will wait 24 hours to see what others are doing before moving. He said he has a friend in Khan Younis who he hopes can pitch a tent for his family.

But some people say they are too tired and tired of months of devastation to flee again.

Sahar Abu Nahel was displaced to Rafah with 20 members of her family, her husband is detained by Israel and her son-in-law is missing, she said.

“Where am I going to go?” I don’t have any money or anything. I am seriously tired, just like (my) children,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Perhaps it is more honorable for us to die. We are humiliated,” she said.


Mroue reported from Beirut.

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