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Israeli strikes deepen panic in Rafah as UN aid chief warns a ground offensive could result in ‘slaughter’

By Helen Regan, Catherine Nicholls, Niamh Kennedy and Michael Rios, CNN

(CNN) — Panic is soaring in Rafah as desperate Palestinians decide whether to flee the last refuge in Gaza as Israel draws up plans for a ground offensive that the United Nations aid chief has warned could lead to “a slaughter.”

A growing number of countries and international organizations are now scrambling to convince Israel to halt its planned offensive, with Ireland’s Taoiseach (or prime minister) Leo Varadkar accusing the country of becoming “blinded by rage.”

The South African government made an “urgent request” to the International Court of Justice Tuesday to determine if Israel’s extended military actions in the southern Gazan city require it to “use its power to prevent further imminent breach of the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Israel has been bombarding Rafah with airstrikes for weeks and says it is committed to a ground offensive as the alternative “is to surrender to Hamas and to sacrifice 134 people,” Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told CNN Tuesday, referring to the Israelis held hostage in Gaza. “That is not an option from Israel’s perspective,” he said.

It remains unclear how or when a ground offensive would unfold, and that uncertainty is adding to anxiety among Palestinians in Rafah about where to go and what to do.

“We’re lost. We don’t know where to go… We’re tired. We’ve been walking around without knowing where to go,” Mo’men Shbair, a displaced Palestinian in Rafah, told Reuters, adding that he prays the world pressures Israel to end the war and “release us.”

United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths warned Tuesday that such an offensive could lead to “a slaughter” and leave humanitarian efforts in Gaza “at death’s door.”

He urged Israel to listen to the international community’s warnings against “the dangerous consequences” of a ground invasion, saying “history will not be kind” if those calls are ignored.

Impossible choice for 1.3 million people

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week directed the country’s military to plan for the “evacuation of the population” from Rafah after saying that the Israel Defense Forces would “soon go into Rafah, Hamas’s last bastion.”

IDF spokesperson Lerner said the military aims to create a plan that evacuates civilians “out of harm’s way” and differentiate civilians between Hamas militants. However, it has not yet presented its evacuation plan to the government, he told CNN on Tuesday.

More than 1.3 million people are now crammed into a sprawling tent city packed against the Egyptian border in Rafah, the only nominally safe space for Palestinians fleeing the north and center of Gaza.

Families are already living with severe shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter, and the daily risk of being killed by Israeli fire.

South Africa called Rafah “the last refuge for surviving people in Gaza” and suggested that Israel’s offensive there “would be in serious and irreparable breach both of the Genocide Convention” and the ICJ’s January court order which required Israel to take “all measures” to prevent genocide in Gaza.

Israeli military action in Rafah “has already led to and will result in further large scale killing, harm and destruction,” the government said in its request to the World Court.

Residents are now faced with an impossible choice: stay in the city and risk becoming trapped in a bloody Israeli ground offensive or attempt to flee Rafah, risking their lives to escape to towns devastated by Israel’s bombing campaign, where the remaining populations say they have been forced to drink toilet water and eat grass to stay alive.

Palestinians in Rafah have “endured unthinkable suffering” after being “on the move for months, braving bombs, disease and hunger,” said the UN’s Griffiths said in a statement Monday. “Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to stay safe? There’s nowhere left to go in Gaza.”

Officials from the United Nations, International Criminal Court, as well as a growing number of countries, including the United Sates, European Union, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and others have expressed concern over a ground offensive and its impact on the civilian population.

China on Tuesday called on Israel to stop its military operations and do “everything possible” to avoid civilian casualties. “We oppose and condemn acts against civilians and international law,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

China has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, urging Israel to stop what it called “collective punishment” on the people of Gaza.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said that Israel’s response to Hamas is “disproportionate” and that “there are too many dead Palestinian civilians who are not Hamas militiamen.”

And Jordan’s King Abdullah II said during a visit to the White House that a ground operation in Rafah would amount to devastation. “We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah… We cannot stand by and let this continue,” he said.

Some of the strongest words of condemnation from a foreign leader have come from Ireland’s prime minister, who told the Irish parliament that it was “very clear” to him that Israel “is not listening to any country in the world.”

“There is a serious risk of a massacre occurring in Rafah if a ground assault were to occur,” Varadkar warned. “They [Israel] have become blinded by rage. And they are going to I believe make the situation much worse for their own security in the long term by going down the path they are going.”

International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim Khan said his office is “actively investigating any crimes allegedly committed” by Israel and was “deeply concerned by the reported bombardment and potential ground incursion by Israeli forces in Rafah.”

‘We lived in terror,’ say Palestinians in Rafah

Though Rafah is considered the last refuge for Palestinians in Gaza, the city has been bombarded by Israeli airstrikes and shelling for weeks.

More than 100 people were killed as “extremely intense” Israeli strikes pounded multiple locations in Rafah on Monday, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

On Monday, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said “there was… a wave of strikes by the Israeli Air Force” on Rafah “in order to allow” Israeli forces to rescue two hostages held captive since the October 7 attack, “and to hit Hamas terrorists in the area.”

Ongoing strikes have caused panic in Rafah with Palestinians now frantically trying to figure out whether to stay or evacuate.

“Last night was really terrible; we lived in terror as if it were Doomsday,” said one displaced man in a video published by the World Health Organization.

“There was gunfire in every direction, and we had nowhere to go. They told us this area was safe… they told us Rafah was safe. The bombardment was in every direction, not knowing where to turn or where to go. We felt like we were going to die.”

Other displaced people said they are fleeing Rafah and heading for Al-Maghazi in central Gaza, and Khan Younis in the south of the enclave.

“We’re going back to Al-Maghazi out of fear — we’re displaced from one area to another,” displaced Palestinian Nahla Jarwan told Reuters.

“Wherever we go, there is no safety. Not in Al-Maghazi, not in Rafah, not anywhere,” she added.

“We’re tired of fleeing from one city to another… People are tired,” Nahla said.

The two Israeli-Argentinian men who were rescued in Monday’s raid had been held for 128 days following their capture during Hamas’s rampage that saw some 1,200 people killed and more than 240 taken hostage.

After Monday’s rescue, the total number of hostages left in Gaza is 134, according to Hagari. Of that number, 130 hostages are from the October 7 attack – with 29 dead and 101 believed to be alive. The other four had been held in Gaza prior to the attack.

Netanyahu has been under mounting pressure from the Israeli public to secure the release of captives in Gaza, with some families of those held hostage being openly critical of the government’s tactics.

“Only the continuation of military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages,” Netanyahu said following the two men’s release.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Abeer Salman, Eve Brennan, Alex Stambaugh, Richard Roth, Jen Deaton, and Mike Schwarz contributed reporting.

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