Israel carried out air strikes in Rafah early Friday just hours after the U.S. warned Israel not to take its ground offensive to the southern Gaza city amid an already severe humanitarian crisis in the area.
More than half of the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people are currently sheltering in Rafah after fleeing their homes in other areas left uninhabitable by the conflict. Biden administration officials on Thursday expressed opposition to the stated aims of Israel bring its war machine to the crowded city.
“We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said, adding that to “conduct such an operation [in Rafah] right now with no planning and little thought in an area where there is sheltering of a million people would be a disaster.” He also pointed out that Rafah is a region which is “a key conduit for access of humanitarian aid,” and its border crossing is where foreign nationals are able to safely leave Gaza.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said separately that military operations in Gaza that do not give “full consideration of protecting civilians at that scale” is “not something that we would support.”
The warnings came as President Joe Biden described Israel’s actions in Gaza as being “over the top”—his strongest criticism yet of Israel’s reaction to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. Israeli officials say the terror attacks killed 1,200 people. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says almost 28,000 people in the enclave have been killed in the ensuing conflict, which is now in its fifth month. Around two-thirds of the dead in Gaza are women and children, Palestinian officials say.
According to the Associated Press, the Israeli strikes in Rafah on Friday struck two residential buildings. An earlier report said at least 13 people were killed. The bombings may be a prelude to a much larger military operation, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Wednesday night that the IDF had been instructed to “take action” in the city. Netanyahu said Rafah and two camps in central Gaza are “the last remaining strongholds of Hamas.” Defense sources nevertheless told The Jerusalem Post that an invasion was not imminent.
Netanyahu’s comments came the day after he rejected a Hamas proposal for a truce in which their remaining captives would be freed and an end to the war negotiated. The prime minister called the group’s demands “delusional” and vowed to never agree to any deal in which Hamas retained control of Gaza, promising instead to deliver a “total victory.”
His uncompromising stance contrasted with that of President Biden, who said Thursday that he remains focused on pursuing a pause in the fighting. “I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage ceasefire,” he told a White House press conference. “There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop.”