Israel has carried out air strikes in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, killing dozens, according to health officials, as Palestinians brace for a major offensive on the densely crowded urban area.
There were conflicting reports of the death toll following the predawn strikes on Monday.
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The AFP news agency reported that the strikes killed 52 people. Reuters reported that at least 67 had been killed. Both outlets quoted health officials in Gaza.
The Israeli strikes hit 14 houses and three mosques in Rafah, according to Palestinian officials.
However, Al Jazeera Arabic colleagues have reported that at least 63 people were killed in the strikes on the mosques. A press statement from Hamas asserted that more than 100 had been killed in the city.
“Israel is officially continuing to target civilians and transfer the war to Rafah to push the population to get displaced under bombardment,” the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement released on X.
“The recent massacres of the occupation are evidence of the validity of international warnings and fears of catastrophic results of the expansion of the war to Rafah,” the ministry added.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates// The occupation's #massacre in Rafah is evidence of the validity of warnings about the catastrophic dangers of its invasion.
Netanyahu commits mass massacres with a mentality of revenge, not victory and not in accordance with… pic.twitter.com/cbuS7iaZr9
— State of Palestine – MFA 🇵🇸🇵🇸 (@pmofa) February 12, 2024
Israel’s military said it had struck a number of “terror targets” in the Shaboura district of Rafah and the strikes had concluded.
It also announced that in an overnight operation in Rafah it had rescued two captives taken by Hamas on October 7.
Military officials said the captives, named as Fernando Simon Marman and Louis Har, were in good condition.
Hamas has warned that an Israeli ground assault in Rafah would “blow up” negotiations to release the group’s remaining captives in Gaza.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Monday to press on with the offensive.
“Only continued military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages,” he said in a statement.
The strikes on Rafah come as Israel is preparing to launch a major offensive that aid agencies fear would result in significant civilian casualties in the last relatively safe area of Gaza.
About 1.4 million Palestinians, or more than half the population of Gaza, have crowded into Rafah to escape Israeli bombardment, which has reduced much of the rest of the enclave to ruins.
Hamas has condemned Israel for the attacks, saying they represent an “expansion of the scope of the massacres it is committing against our people”.
“The Nazi occupation army’s attack on the city of Rafah tonight… which [has] claimed the lives of more than a hundred martyrs so far, is considered a continuation of the genocidal war and the attempts at forced displacement it is waging against our Palestinian people,” the group said in a press release.
United States President Joe Biden on Sunday warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to launch an offensive on Rafah without a “credible and executable plan” to ensure the safety of people sheltering in the city.
Netanyahu has promised “safe passage” for Palestinians in Rafah, but the lack of clarity about evacuation plans has prompted fears that they may be pushed into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, stoking tensions with Cairo.
Netanyahu on Sunday told Fox News that “there’s plenty of room” north of Rafah and that is “where we’re going to direct them”, without specifying which part of Gaza would be safe to evacuate to.