A street in Rafah is strewn with rubble after Israeli bombardment on February 9

Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel launched new strikes Friday on the overcrowded Gazan city of Rafah, after President Joe Biden issued the strongest rebuke yet to the US ally, warning its response to Hamas’s October 7 attack has been “over the top”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has ordered Israel’s army to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major Gaza city that its ground troops have yet to attack.

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

Map of southern Gaza Strip

But the US State Department said it does not support a ground offensive in Rafah, warning that, if not properly planned, such an operation in a city sheltering more than one million displaced Palestinians risked “disaster”.

And in a sign of his growing frustration with Israel’s leadership, Biden said its military retaliation for the October 7 attack had gone too far.

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top,” the US president said.

US President Joe Biden answers questions about Israel on February 8

“There are a lot of innocent people who are starving… in trouble and dying, and it’s got to stop.”

Witnesses reported new strikes overnight on Rafah, after the Israeli military intensified air raids on a city teeming with about half of the Gaza Strip’s 2.4 million people.

AFP images showed scenes of devastation in Rafah’ streets, where people queued for increasingly scarce water.

- ‘Die in our homes’ -

The Hamas-run territory’s health ministry said more than 100 people were killed in overnight bombardment, including at least eight in Rafah.

Satellite images show Rafah before and after Israel's bombardment forced hundreds of thousands to flee to the south Gaza city, on October 15, 2023 and January 14, 2024

The Palestinian Red Crescent said three children were killed in a strike in Rafah, where many displaced are trapped in tents pushed up against the Egyptian border.

“We heard the sound of a huge explosion next to our house… we found two children martyred in the street,” said Jaber al-Bardini, 60.

“There is no safe place in Rafah. If they storm Rafah we will die in our homes. We have no choice. We don’t want to go anywhere else.”

The Israeli army said Friday its forces had “eliminated 15 terrorists” in the past day in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza’s biggest city. It also reported fighting in central and northern Gaza.

Women and children queue for water in Rafah on February 9

Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

In response, Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,947 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

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

- ‘Anxiety and panic’ -

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington had “yet to see any evidence of serious planning” for an Israeli ground operation in Rafah.

Children peer from the window of a damaged building in Rafah on February 9

Noting the city was also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid, he added such an assault was “not something we’d support”.

“To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought… would be a disaster,” Patel said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had conveyed Washington’s concerns to Netanyahu directly during talks this week in Jerusalem, he added.

An Israeli soldier looks on as a helicopter takes off near the Lebanon border

UN chief Antonio Guterres said news of the coming Israeli push into Rafah was “alarming”, saying it “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare”.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, warned against a major Israeli operation in Rafah.

“There’s a sense of growing anxiety and growing panic in Rafah. People have absolutely no idea where to go after Rafah,” said its chief, Philippe Lazzarini.

- Ceasefire talks -

On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw “space for agreement to be reached” to halt the fighting and bring home Israeli hostages, even after Netanyahu rejected what he labelled Hamas’s “bizarre demands”.

Cairo hosted new talks Friday with Qatari and Hamas negotiators seeking a Gaza ceasefire and an agreement for a hostage-prisoner exchange.

A Hamas source told AFP there had been “positive and good discussions” in the Egyptian capital so far and expressed hopes for more progress.

The impact of the war has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas across the Middle East surging since October and drawing in US forces among others.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said Friday it had fired dozens of rockets into Israel overnight in response to attacks in its south, including the city of Nabatiyeh.

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthis say they are targeting Israeli-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza

It came a day after an Israeli strike on a car in Nabatiyeh seriously wounded a Hezbollah commander, sources on both sides of the border said.

On the same day, the US military struck four unmanned surface vessels and seven cruise missiles it said Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels had been set to launch against ships in the Red Sea.

The strike came after US forces last week launched a wave of attacks on Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria following the killing of three US troops in neighbouring Jordan.