JERUSALEM — The Israeli military issued an “urgent warning” to evacuate parts of Rafah on Saturday, signaling an expansion of its military campaign despite warnings from the United States about attacking Gaza’s southernmost city where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering.

The Israel Defense Forces published a map showing that sectors of the city were now considered a “dangerous combat zone” and warned civilians that it would “act with extreme force against terrorist organizations in your area of ​​residence.”

“Everyone in these areas is risking their lives and the lives of their family members,” it said. “For your safety — we ask you to evacuate immediately to the humanitarian zone.”

Israel has already sent some tanks into Rafah, and has said for months that it will launch a full-scale ground assault on the city. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of his government have insisted it is necessary to ensure the destruction of Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that saw some 1,200 people killed and around 240 taken hostage, according to Israel.

That would defy pressure from the U.S and others who have warned that such an attack threatened devastating consequences for the Palestinians who have fled there from the rest of the enclave.

Palestinians transport their belongings on the back of a van as they flee Rafah on Saturday.
Palestinians transport their belongings on the back of a van as they flee Rafah on Saturday.(Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images) / (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Facing rising anger domestically, President Joe Biden has become increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct in the war, in which around 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to health officials in the enclave.

On Friday, the Biden administration said it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel has violated international law in Gaza using weapons provided by the United States, but that it hasn’t violated terms of U.S. weapons agreements.

Senior administration officials previously told NBC News that the U.S. halted a large shipment of offensive weapons to Israel last week over fears that they would be used to invade Rafah. Biden later said that the U.S. would not provide Israel with certain weapons and artillery shells if it launches a ground offensive on the city.

Along with representatives from Qatar and Egypt, American officials, including CIA Director William Burns, have been eading attempts to broker a cease-fire in the conflict. But the latest efforts looked dashed after Israeli and Hamas mediators left Cairo this week having failed to reach a deal. Hamas — a banned terrorist group in most of the West — said negotiations were back to square one.

Meanwhile, United Nations experts demanded Thursday that “Israel must halt this assault,” which it called in a news release “a culmination of a seven-month long campaign to forcibly transfer and destroy Gaza’s population.”

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip arrive at a makeshift tent camp west of Rafah on Friday.Abdel Kareem Hana / AP

Israel has taken control of the Rafah Border Crossing, Gaza’s main entry and exit point into Egypt. The U.N. said that this had resulted in “further cutting off life-saving humanitarian aid, supplies and fuel needed to run Gaza’s remaining hospitals and water desalination plants.”

Doctors Without Borders also warned that “critical supplies including fuel are running low,” which it said would “have critical consequences on our operations.”

Hamas, the militant group that controlled Gaza before Israel’s latest assault, also criticized the move. In a statement Saturday it urged Israel to “stop its aggression, withdraw from the crossing, reopen it and facilitate the arrival of emergency relief and medical supplies to our besieged people.”

Israel’s order Saturday applied to areas in central Rafah, more populated areas than the places Israel ordered to be evacuated at the start of the week.

In addition, the IDF has also urged people in Jabalia, a city in the north of Gaza, to “temporarily evacuate to shelters in western Gaza City.”

It said “this is in order to reduce harm to the civilian population and to move civilians away from the combat zone, in accordance with international law.”

Israel’s evacuation warning came amid heavy clashes on the outskirts of the city between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants leaving the crucial nearby aid crossings inaccessible. More than 110,000 people have already fled north from the city.

Smoke rises above buildings during an early morning Israeli strike on Rafah Saturday.
Smoke rises above buildings during an early morning Israeli strike on Rafah Saturday. Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images / Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images

The IDF has advised Palestinians to move to Al-Mawasi, a nearby coastal area where Israel has promised an “expanded humanitarian area” would await them.

However the concept of these “safe zones” has been widely questioned. An NBC News investigation found last month that Palestinians were killed in areas of southern Gaza that the Israeli military had explicitly designated as such.

The U.N. on Thursday said that Al Mawasi, where the Israeli military has instructed evacuees to go, “is already without sufficient food, water, medicine, hygiene products, electricity, shelter and access to education for children; it cannot cope with a population influx.”

Richard Engel reported from Jerusalem and Alexander Smith from London.


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