Israeli airstrikes kill dozens in Rafah after Netanyahu orders evacuation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his military to draw up plans to evacuate Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, where one and a half million people are sheltering

Israeli airstrikes killed at least 44 Palestinians in the Gazan city of Rafah on Saturday, hours after Israel's prime minister said he asked the military to plan for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people ahead of a ground invasion.

Benjamin Netanyahu did not provide details or a timeline, but the announcement set off widespread panic.

More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, many after being uprooted repeatedly by Israeli evacuation orders that now cover two-thirds of the Gaza Strip.

Currently, it is not clear where they could next move to.

A Hamas-run government media office urged the United Nations (UN) Security Council on Saturday to "convene immediately", following Netanyahu's announcement.

"We call on the UN Security Council to convene immediately and urgently to confirm its determination to oblige the 'Israeli' occupation to stop the genocidal war it is committing against the Palestinians in Gaza," read the statement, warning of a "catastrophe and massacre that could leave tens of thousands martyred and wounded".

Egypt and Qatar have similarly expressed concern about any Israeli offensive in Rafah, with the former's foreign minister warning it would have "disastrous consequences".

UK Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, meanwhile, said he is said he is "deeply concerned" about the prospect of a ground invasion.

"Deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah - over half of Gaza's population are sheltering in the area," Lord Cameron wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"The priority must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire."

Word of the invasion plans capped a week of increasingly public friction between Mr Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden's administration.

US officials have said an invasion of Rafah without a plan for the civilian population would lead to disaster.

Israel has carried out airstrikes in Rafah almost daily, even after telling civilians in recent weeks to seek shelter there from ground combat in the city of Khan Younis, just to the north.

Overnight into Saturday, three airstrikes on homes in the Rafah area killed 28 people, according to a health official and Associated Press (AP) journalists.

Each strike killed multiple members of three families, including a total of 10 children, the youngest three-months-old.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted an invasion of Rafah is necessary to achieve victory. Credit: AP

A further 11 people - including three children - were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit a home in Rafah, according to the head of the city's municipality.

Two other strikes killed two policemen and three senior officers in the civil police, city officials said.

In Khan Younis - the focus of the current ground combat - Israeli forces opened fire at Nasser Hospital - the area's largest - killing at least two people and wounding five, said Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry.

Rafah had a pre-war population of roughly 280,000 people, and according to the UN is now home to some 1.4 million additional people living with relatives, in shelters or sprawling tent camps after fleeing fighting elsewhere in Gaza.

Israel declared war after several thousand Hamas militants burst across the border into southern Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage.

An Israeli air and ground offensive has so far killed around 28,000 Palestinians, most of them women and minors, according to local health officials.

Roughly 80% of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been displaced, and the territory has plunged into a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food and medical services.

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