More than a million displaced Palestinian civilians have sought shelter in Rafah

Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel conducted fresh strikes on southern Gaza’s overcrowded border town of Rafah on Friday, where more than a million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter, with key backer the United States warning of a looming “disaster”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major town in the Gaza Strip Israeli ground troops have yet to enter.

A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the United States did not support an Israeli operation in Rafah, with President Joe Biden later telling reporters he considered Israel’s conduct of its war against Hamas to be “over the top”.

The Israeli military stepped up its air strikes on Rafah Thursday, with witnesses reporting more overnight.

The territory’s Hamas-run health ministry said early Friday that more than 100 people were killed during the night, including at least eight in Rafah.

The Palestinian Red Crescent meanwhile said three children had died in a strike on Rafah.

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

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

Noting Rafah 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,” he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed Washington’s concerns to Netanyahu directly during talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem, Patel said.

Asked about the war in Gaza at an unrelated press conference Thursday evening, Biden told reporters he was “of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top”.

- Little progress on truce -

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

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza have staged multiple rallies calling for their release

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

Months of bombardment and siege have given rise to a deepening humanitarian crisis, especially in southern Gaza.

UN rights chief Volker Turk, meanwhile, charged that Israel was committing a “war crime” with its reported destruction of buildings to create a “buffer zone” along the border inside Gaza.

Israel’s “extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime”, he said in a statement.

Despite a recent blitz of diplomatic efforts aimed at brokering a truce, Blinken wrapped up his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war started without securing a pause in fighting.

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”.

Egypt was set to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators in hopes of achieving “calm” in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP they expected negotiations to be “difficult”, but said Hamas was “keen to reach a ceasefire”.

In Riyadh, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan reiterated calls for a “immediate and complete ceasefire”, as well as “irreversible” steps towards the recognition of a Palestinian state during talks on the war in Gaza, Saudi state media reported on Friday.

Two diplomats briefed on preparations for Thursday’s meeting told AFP it was intended to promote a unified Arab position on the war.

- ‘Axis of resistance’ -

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, whose country backs the “axis of resistance” groups aligned against Israel, is expected to travel to Lebanon on Friday.

The Iran-backed axis, which includes Hamas, have stepped up attacks around the Middle East, including in Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants fired a barrage of rockets towards Israel on Thursday.

Earlier Thursday evening, an Israeli drone strike on a car in south Lebanon seriously wounded a Hezbollah commander, sources on both sides of the border said.

On the same day, American forces struck “four Huthi unmanned surface vessels (USV) and seven mobile anti-ship cruise missiles that were prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea”, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported.

This picture taken from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis during Israeli bombardment on February 8, 2024

A US air strike in Iraq on Wednesday killed a senior commander from a pro-Iran armed group who CENTCOM said was “responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces”.

The strike came after Washington 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.

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