Dozens of Palestinians perish as Israel bombs houses in Rafah, Gaza

Friday, Feb 23, 2024

RAFAH, Gaza Strip/CAIRO/JERUSALEM: Israeli bombs on Rafah flattened a mosque and destroyed homes in what residents called one of their worst nights yet, while the Hamas chief was in Cairo for talks Gazans hope could bring a truce in time to head off a full-blown assault on the city.

Mourners wept over at least seven corpses in body bags, laid on cobbles outside a morgue in the city hard against the Egyptian border, where over half of the Palestinian enclave’s 2.3 million people are now huddling, mostly in tents.

“They took the people I love, they took a piece of my heart,” wailed Dina al-Shaer, whose brother and his family were killed in a strike that relatives said hit their home shortly after midnight.

Gaza health authorities said 23 Palestinians were killed in IDF bombing of houses in central Gaza.

Earlier the health ministry said 97 people were confirmed killed and 130 wounded in the last 24 hours of Israeli assaults, but most victims were still under rubble or in areas rescuers could not reach.

Rafah’s al-Farouk mosque was flattened into slabs of concrete, the facades of adjacent buildings blasted away. Authorities said four houses had been struck in the south of the city and three in the centre. Residents said the bombing was the heaviest since an Israeli raid on the city ten days ago that freed two hostages and killed scores of civilians.

“We couldn’t sleep, the sounds of explosions and planes roaring overhead didn’t stop,” said Jehad Abuemad, 34, living with his family in a tent. “We could hear children crying in nearby tents, people here are desperate and defenceless.” To the north of Rafah, smoke rose in the sky above Khan Younis, the territory’s principal battlefield since Israel launched an assault there last month.

Gaza authorities said at least 20 people were also killed by bombing of two houses in a central part of the Gaza Strip, the only other substantial area yet to be stormed by Israeli forces.

Israel launched its campaign in Gaza after Hamas militants who control the territory stormed through Israeli towns on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages. Since then, nearly 30,000 people have been confirmed killed in Gaza, according to health authorities, with thousands more feared dead, unrecovered under ruins.

Israel has threatened to launch a full-blown attack on Rafah, the last city at Gaza’s southern edge, despite international pleas - including from its main ally Washington - for restraint. Residents who have fled to Rafah from elsewhere say there is nowhere left to go. Meanwhile, an already meagre aid flow has almost completely dried up.

The heads of the main UN relief agencies, including UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and the WHO, released a letter pleading for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and warning that further escalation into Rafah would cause mass casualties.

The arrival of Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo this week for his first publicly announced visit since December was the strongest sign for weeks that negotiations remain alive. Haniyeh has met Egyptian mediators, but so far little has been said in public.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters Israel was now backtracking on terms Israel had accepted weeks ago in a ceasefire offer hammered out with U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

In one of the first indications of how Israel sees Gaza being run after the war, a senior Israeli official said Israel was looking for Palestinians with no links to either Hamas or the rival Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank, to set up a civil administration in “humanitarian pockets” of Gaza.Later in the evening , Israeli forces raided Nasser Medical Complex, the biggest functioning hospital in Gaza, shortly after withdrawing from it, the Palestinian enclave’s health ministry said.