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Hamas warns Israel's Rafah push may cause casualties in 'tens of thousands'

The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas on Saturday expressed concerns that Israel's upcoming military action in heavily populated Rafah could result in significant casualties among the already displaced Palestinian residents.

Published February 10,2024

Gaza's Hamas rulers warned on Saturday that Israel's planned army operation in overcrowded Rafah could cause "tens of thousands" of casualties in the city that has become the last refuge for displaced Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the army to set its sights on Rafah, telling military and security officials late Friday to "submit to the cabinet a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions" of Hamas in the southern city.

Hamas said in a statement that any military action would have catastrophic repercussion that "may lead to tens of thousands of martyrs and injured if Rafah... is invaded".

Netanyahu's announcement, coming after US President Joe Biden had issued his strongest criticism of Israel's response to the October 7 attack, sparked concern among world leaders and the United Nations.

"The Israeli occupation's move threatens security and peace in the region and the world. This is a blatant violation of all red lines," said the office of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi warned "another bloodbath in Gaza cannot be allowed", in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Spain and Germany warned of a "humanitarian catastrophe" if the plan went ahead.

The war in Gaza was sparked by Palestinian resistance movement Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive in Gaza that the territory's health ministry says has killed at least 28,064 people, mostly women and children.

Militants seized 250 hostages, 132 of whom are still in Gaza although 29 are presumed dead, Israel has said.

The United States is Israel's main international backer, providing it with billions of dollars in military aid.

The US State Department has said it does not support a ground offensive in Rafah, warning that, if not properly planned, such an operation risks "disaster".

In a sign of growing frustration, Biden issued his strongest criticism of Israel yet on Thursday, describing the retaliation for Hamas's October 7 attack as "over the top".

Biden said there are "a lot of innocent people who are starving... in trouble and dying, and it's got to stop."

But Netanyahu's office said it would be "impossible" to achieve the war's objective of eliminating Hamas while leaving four of its battalions in Rafah.

The Israeli military said it had killed two "senior Hamas operatives" in an air strike on Rafah Saturday, part of a wider bombardment that killed at least 25 people in the city, according to the health ministry.

The military claimed that troops had uncovered a Hamas tunnel under the Gaza City headquarters of the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) -- already under scrutiny after it sacked several staff last month following Israeli allegations they took part in the October 7 attacks.

UNRWA said it had been forced to evacuate the compound under Israeli instruction on October 12 and called for an independent investigation of the allegation.

Hamas has repeatedly denied Israeli accusations that it has dug a network of tunnels under schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure as cover for its activities.

Fears are mounting over the fate of more than one million displaced Palestinians who have taken shelter in Rafah, many of them in plastic tents pushed up against the border with Egypt.

"We are between life and death," said one of them, Bassel Matar. "We don't know if there will be hope tomorrow for a truce or there will be changes on the ground."

Rafah is the last major population centre in the Gaza Strip that Israeli troops have yet to enter and also the main point of entry for desperately needed relief supplies.

Humanitarian organisations have sounded alarm at the prospect of a ground incursion.

The UN children's fund, UNICEF, warned this week that "thousands more could die in the violence or lack of essential services".

Netanyahu announced the plan for a ground operation in Rafah only days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel seeking a ceasefire and hostage-prisoner exchange.

Hamas negotiators departed Cairo on Friday after what a Hamas source described as "positive and good discussions" with Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

The delegation "is awaiting Israel's response," a Hamas official told AFP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak on the issue.

Citing US and Egyptian officials, the US news outlet Axios reported that Biden is sending CIA director William Burns to Cairo next week to push for a deal to secure the release of more hostages.

The impact of the war has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas surging across the Middle East.

A senior Hamas officer survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Lebanon, Palestinian and Lebanese security sources told AFP, but two other people including a Hezbollah member were killed in the attack.

And in Syria, Israeli strikes near Damascus killed three people, a war monitor said, adding the targeted neighbourhood hosted villas for top military and civilian officials.