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Israel's defense chief says the military is “thoroughly planning” an offensive in the crowded Gaza border town.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel's defense minister said Friday that Israel is “thoroughly” planning a military offensive in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, signaling its determination to press forward despite growing international concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge there.

US President Joe Biden has called on Israel not to carry out the operation without a “credible” plan to protect civilians and instead focus on a ceasefire, while Egypt said an operation could jeopardize diplomatic ties between the countries. Many other world leaders have issued similar worrying messages.

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza's population, are crowded into Rafah, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory. Hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel had inflicted heavy casualties on Hamas in a war now in its fifth month and that Rafah was “the next focus of Hamas” that Israel wants to target.

“We are thoroughly planning future operations in Rafah, a major Hamas stronghold,” he said. He declined to say when the operation might begin, although Israel had previously said it would first develop a plan to evacuate civilians.

Palestinians and international aid groups say there is no safe place to go, and Israel is also carrying out attacks in areas where it had ordered civilians to seek shelter, including Rafah.

The Israeli military began its war in response to a cross-border attack by Hamas on October 7 that killed around 1,200 people in Israel and took 250 others hostage. The air and ground offensive has killed over 28,000 Palestinians, caused widespread destruction, displaced about 80% of the population and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-controlled enclave, according to health authorities.

Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel against pushing Palestinian civilians across the border in Rafah, saying a mass influx could lead to the end of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace deal.

While some Israeli hardliners have called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, Gallant said there are no plans to do so.

“The State of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt,” he said. “We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which represents a cornerstone of stability in the region and an important partner.”

However, new satellite photos suggest that Egypt is preparing for exactly this scenario. The images show Egypt building a wall and leveling land near its border with Gaza. Egyptian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Israeli offensive included months of air strikes as well as a ground invasion that moved steadily southward through most of the Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks it has focused on Khan Younis, Gaza's second largest city and a Hamas stronghold.

On Friday, Palestinian health officials in Khan Younis said five patients in intensive care died after their oxygen ran out following a raid by Israeli troops on the largest hospital in southern Gaza.

The Israeli army has searched the Nasser Hospital complex, arresting suspected Hamas militants and looking for evidence that there may be remains of Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas. Israel says it is not targeting patients or doctors, but staff say the facility is struggling under heavy fire and dwindling supplies, including food and water.

Gallant said 70 suspected militants were arrested at the hospital, including 20 who were allegedly involved in the Oct. 7 attack.

Two Israeli air strikes on Rafah overnight killed at least 13 people, including nine members of the same family, hospital officials said.

Also on Friday, a Palestinian attacker opened fire at a bus stop at a busy intersection in southern Israel, killing two people and wounding four before being shot by a passerby. There was no immediate claim to responsibility.

Ceasefire is delayed

Meanwhile, negotiations over a ceasefire in Gaza appear to have stalled, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday came out strongly against the US's postwar vision – particularly its calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.

After speaking with Biden overnight and reportedly meeting with CIA chief William Burns, he wrote on X that Israel would not accept “international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians.”

He said if other countries unilaterally recognized a Palestinian state it would be a “reward for terrorism.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the creation of a Palestinian state and even boasted that he was instrumental in preventing it during his time in office.

His ruling coalition is dominated by hardliners opposed to Palestinian independence, and any diplomatic process would likely lead to the government's collapse.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until Hamas is destroyed and the more than 100 hostages remaining in captivity are released.

Biden on Friday called on Netanyahu to postpone a Rafah operation and instead seek a ceasefire that could include the release of Israeli hostages.

“I'm still confident that this can be done, and in the meantime I don't expect the Israelis won't carry out a massive land invasion,” Biden said. “My hope and expectation is that we get this hostage deal.”


Gallant published new Israeli allegations against the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, including a photo of a UN social worker involved in the October 7 kidnapping of an Israeli.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of collaborating with Hamas or ignoring the militant group's activities.

Images of tunnels built next to UNRWA facilities have been published throughout the war, and last month it was claimed that twelve UNRWA staff actively participated in the October 7 massacre.

This prompted the United States and other donor countries to stop funding UNRWA, the main donor of humanitarian assistance in Gaza. The agency says it will have to suspend operations by the end of the month if funding is not restored.

UNRWA denies any collaboration with Hamas. The company has already fired employees accused in the Oct. 7 attacks and launched two investigations into its operations.

In his presentation to reporters, Gallant said Israeli intelligence had “significant indications” that more than 30 other UNRWA employees had joined the Oct. 7 attack.

He said nearly 1,500 workers, 12% of the workforce, were members of Hamas or the militant group Islamic Jihad, and over 230 were in its armed wings.

“UNRWA has lost its legitimacy and can no longer function as a UN body,” he said. He said he had ordered Israeli authorities to work with alternative organizations that could replace UNRWA.

UNRWA official Philippe Lazzarini says he takes the allegations seriously, but has also pointed out that the 12 workers identified by Israel represent only a tiny fraction of UNRWA's total workforce. He warned that halting operations could jeopardize the well-being of Gazans who depend on the agency.

The agency did not comment on Gallant's latest allegations, but said it regularly provides Israel with the names of its employees and takes action against anyone found to be violating U.N. neutrality rules.

“These shocking allegations come as more than 2 million people in Gaza rely on life-saving assistance that the organization has been providing since the start of the war,” Lazzarini said last month.

“Anyone who betrays the core values ​​of the United Nations also betrays those we serve in Gaza, throughout the region and elsewhere in the world,” he added.


Shurafa reported from Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Mroue reported from Beirut. Associate Press writer Darlene Superville contributed reporting from Washington.


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