Israel hits Rafah from air as US urges ground rethink

Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams |

Over one million Gazans, half the population, are experiencing “catastrophic” shortages of food.
Over one million Gazans, half the population, are experiencing “catastrophic” shortages of food.

Israel has killed 14 people in air strikes in Rafah, Palestinian medical officials say, as the United States urges a rethink of a promised ground sweep against Hamas holdouts in the refugee-clogged city on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip.

More than a million Palestinians displaced by the five-month-old Israeli assault elsewhere in the enclave have been sheltering in Rafah, which abuts Gaza’s border with Egypt.

Israel says one-sixth of Hamas’ combat strength – four battalions of the rifle- and rocket-wielding fighters – is in Rafah and must be crushed before the war can conclude. 

But the prospect of a spiralling civilian toll has raised alarm abroad.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the overnight strikes on several buildings in Rafah. 

Medics said the dead included three women and three children. The identities of the eight men killed were not immediately clear.

With a new round of mediated talks under way on a possible release of hostages Hamas took during an October 7 killing spree in Israel that sparked the war, the White House said it would confer with its ally before any troops or tanks move into Rafah.

Palestinians line up at Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip
The Biden administration has called on Israel to step up humanitarian aid throughout the enclave. (AP PHOTO)

“Our position is that … a major ground operation there would be a mistake,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday after a call between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Most importantly, the key goals Israel wants to achieve in Rafah can be done by other means,” Sullivan said, without elaborating. 

He said Israeli delegates were due in Washington soon to hear US concerns and “lay out an alternative approach”.

At least 31,819 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, the enclave’s health ministry said.

Israeli officials said their forces have killed about 14,000 Gaza combatants.

In a statement on his conversation with Biden, Netanyahu made no direct mention of Rafah but reiterated the war aims of destroying Hamas, recovering all hostages and pacifying Gaza.

A member of Israel’s security cabinet, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, was sceptical about scrapping a Rafah sweep.

“There is no way of destroying the terrorist and military infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza – including in Rafah – through aerial operations or messaging operations or through any other alternatives,” Dichter told Kan radio.

The Washington deliberations, he predicted, would focus on plans for relocating civilians and may include Egyptian input.

Sullivan appeared to suggest the Netanyahu government might place precedence on “a focus on stabilising the areas of Gaza that Israel has cleared so that Hamas does not regenerate and retake territory”. 

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan
A major ground assault in Rafah would be a mistake, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. (EPA PHOTO)

The Biden administration has also called on Israel to step up humanitarian aid throughout the enclave.

The Palestinians accused Israel of embarking on a “destruction” of Rafah.

“Israel has initiated its aggression without waiting for permission from anyone and without declaring it to avoid international reactions,” the Palestinian foreign ministry said.

An Israeli air strike in Nusseirat, central Gaza, killed six people, Palestinian medics said.

The military did not immediately comment but has previously said the area had two Hamas battalions which had yet to face a ground operation.

Another strike on a house in northern Gaza City killed 15 people, medics said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment on that but said a soldier was killed in fighting in the area, bringing its total combat losses in the war to 252.

About 1200 people were killed, and 253 kidnapped, by Hamas on October 7, according to Israeli tallies.

In Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, Shaban Abdel-Raouf, a father of five, hoped the Qatari-hosted talks between Israel and Hamas would yield a truce.

“We are looking forward to the good news from Qatar. Will it happen this time? Will they seal a deal? Over two million people in Gaza are praying they do,” Abdel-Raouf told Reuters via a messaging app.

Reuters