Israel’s military threatens to advance into last Gaza ‘safe zone’

Israel said troops would soon move into the refugee camp and city of Rafah, the last designated safe zone for Palestinian civilians in the besieged Gaza Strip where more than a million people are sequestered.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Thursday that after achieving military objectives in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, forces would now enter Rafah, which is even farther south and located at the border with Egypt.

The move into Rafah renewed fears that Palestinian civilians will no longer have any place to flee the violence as nearly all of Gaza has now come under Israeli control. Israel has designated Rafah a safe zone, though critics say nowhere in Gaza is safe.

Some 1.7 million Palestinians are in Rafah after being displaced from their homes in Gaza, according to the United Nations. The city once had a population of around 250,000 people, making it immensely overcrowded.

The death toll in Gaza has already soared past 27,000, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.

Though Israel has faced international pressure to scale back its assault, Gallant said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that Israel must continue advancing to defeat Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“The great pressure that the forces exert on Hamas targets brings us closer to the return of the abductees, more than anything else,” Gallant said. “We will continue until the end, there is no other way.”

Iranian Telegram channels, which include statements from Hamas, claimed there were large Israeli airstrikes in both Khan Younis and Rafah on Friday.

The war has strained nearly every service in Gaza, even with humanitarian aid flowing in the strip with trucks. Communication blackouts are common, and Palestinians are struggling to secure basic necessities, including food and medical aid. Hospitals are struggling to stay online and treat patients while the U.N. has warned of a hunger crisis.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the office of U.N.’s secretary-general, said he was “extremely” worried about increased military action in Rafah.

“We’ve already seen the impacts of the actions in Khan Younis,” he said. “Further south you get, the more densely populated it gets. … It is very worrying.”

Israel is fighting to defeat Hamas in retaliation for the militia group invading southern Israel and killing around 1,200 people, along with taking some 240 hostages. About 130 hostages remain in Gaza.

After two months of heavy fighting in northern Gaza, Israel began moving south, at the same time moving civilians to smaller and smaller safe zones. But Rafah has become the main destination for fleeing Palestinians.

James McGoldrick, the U.N.’s interim resident coordinator for the Palestinian people, said Rafah is now overwhelmed by people.

“As soon as you arrive through Rafah, what hits you straight away is the immensity of the people who are displaced: every street, every pavement,” he said earlier this month. “They also have these makeshift tents built onto the side of buildings encroaching on the roads. It’s very hard to move around. The place is really, really packed.”

Israel maintains that it must root out Hamas in every place fighters reside, accusing the militants of hiding behind civilians as shields.

Israel’s war aims have become elusive, with Hamas still intact after more than 100 days of war and the remaining hostages still not freed.

A potential deal has emerged to end the fighting, which would likely see a release of the 130 hostages for a pause in the war. But Israel has laid down a hard line amid the negotiations, pledging not to approve a cease-fire, which Hamas insists on for a hostage release.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged earlier this week he would only stop after “total victory” in Gaza.

“Nothing less,” he said. “I am committed to it.”

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