JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister has signaled that ground forces will advance toward the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, which has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pushed from their homes by nearly 13 weeks of war.
Rafah, which has also been a gateway for humanitarian aid, is a sprawl of tents and makeshift shelters crammed against the border with Egypt. About half of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have piled into and around the city, where about 200,000 people lived before the war, the United Nations said Friday.
The city is one of the last in southern Gaza that Israeli ground forces, which have been fighting house-to-house battles in nearby Khan Younis, have not yet reached.
“We are completing the mission in Khan Younis and we will reach Rafah, as well, and eliminate every terrorist there who threatens to harm us,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a visit to troops in Khan Younis, according to footage distributed by his office late Thursday.
The prospect of battles in an area with so many displaced people has alarmed refugees there and United Nations officials.
“We fear for what comes next,” Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said at a news conference in Geneva on Friday. He described Rafah as a “pressure cooker of despair.”
Gallant’s comments came as Israel and Hamas are considering a U.S.-led proposal for a prolonged cease-fire and a swap of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinians held by Israel.
It was not clear whether Gallant’s reference to Rafah reflected an immediate military objective, or whether it was intended more as a signal of resolve to the Israeli public and Hamas while Israel awaited the group’s response to the cease-fire proposal.
Hamas’ top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a statement Friday that the group was studying the proposal but that it was insisting that the deal “completely end” the fighting. The proposal does not include a permanent cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will continue fighting Hamas in Gaza until it achieves “complete victory,” even as he faces rising domestic pressure to make a deal to free the remaining hostages, and international calls to ease the fighting and limit harm to civilians.
For weeks, Israeli ground troops have been fighting intense battles in Khan Younis, where Israel says it is trying to kill or capture Hamas leaders it believes are hiding in and beneath the city in an extensive network of tunnels.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said Israeli forces attacked a hospital complex in Khan Younis on Friday and killed a number of people, including one of its employees. The Israeli military declined to comment on the report. But it has said that its intelligence indicates that Hamas is operating inside and around the hospital, Al-Amal, although it has not offered evidence to support its claim.
Al-Amal complex and a second hospital, Nasser Medical Complex, have been surrounded for days by Israeli ground forces, according to aid groups and the Gaza Health Ministry, trapping thousands of patients, medical staff and displaced Palestinians who had sought shelter.
Many Palestinians who fled the fighting in Khan Younis and other parts of Gaza in recent weeks are camped out in Rafah, often with just the clothes they were wearing.
Ahmed Alghazaly, a 26-year-old Gaza resident, said by phone Friday that he feared the Israeli advance would push him out of Rafah, yet another displacement for his family, which is originally from Gaza City.
From a rain-drenched tent in Rafah, Alghazaly described feeling “besieged on every side” by Israeli forces as the cold set in. Food was scarce and took hours to come by, he said. But “wherever they tell us to flee, we will flee,” he said, with evident exhaustion.
Israel’s stated goal of toppling Hamas’ rule in Gaza would most likely require at least some of its forces to enter Rafah to attack the group’s network there. But if Israel were to advance on the city, it is not clear how it would provide for the safety of civilians, many of whom have fled multiple times as Israel has ordered evacuations in areas it intended to target.
Laerke said Friday that severe constraints on deliveries of supplies such as food, water and medicine, along with escalating levels of disease, have increased the sense of desperation.
Netanyahu has said that Israel must take control of a strip of land along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt to defeat Hamas, which led the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, killing 1,200 people and leading to the abduction into Gaza of 240 others.
The move could effectively cut Egypt off from Gaza, potentially weakening Egypt’s regional role and bringing the fighting to its border. Gaza health officials say the death toll from Israel’s bombardment and invasion of the enclave has surpassed 26,000 people.
Egyptian officials have said that Israeli military control of the land corridor would violate agreements between the two sides.
“It must be strictly emphasized that any Israeli move in this direction will lead to a serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations,” Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian government spokesperson, said in late January.
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