Strikes on Gaza's Rafah as Biden calls Israel actions excessive

A Palestinian man mourns over shrouded bodies of relatives killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip at hospital in Rafah
In a hospital in Rafah a Palestinian man mourns over shrouded bodies of relatives killed overnight in Israel's bombardment of the southern Gaza Strip (image: Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel launched new air strikes on Friday on the city of Rafah in Gaza's far south, after U.S. President Joe Biden said its response to Hamas's October 7 attack has been "over the top".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has ordered Israeli forces to "prepare to operate" in Rafah, the last major city in the Gaza Strip that Israeli ground troops have yet to attack.

The United States is Israel's main international ally, providing it with billions of dollars in military aid.

The State Department said on Thursday it did not support a ground offensive in Rafah, warning that, if not properly planned, such an operation in a city sheltering more than one million displaced Palestinians risked "disaster".

And in a rare rebuke from its ally, Biden said Israel's military response to the October 7 attack had been excessive and should stop.

"I'm of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top," he told reporters at the White House. "There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it's got to stop."

Witnesses reported fresh strikes on Rafah overnight, after the Israeli military stepped up air raids on a city now overcrowded with about half of the Gaza Strip's 2.4 million people.

'Die in our homes'

The Hamas-run territory's health ministry said more than 100 people were killed in the bombardment during the night, including at least eight in Rafah. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said three children were killed in a strike on Rafah.

"We heard the sound of a huge explosion next to our house... we found two children martyred in the street," said Jaber al-Bardini, a 60-year-old in Rafah. "There is no safe place in Rafah. If they storm Rafah we will die in our homes. We have no choice. We don't want to go anywhere else."

The Israeli army said on Friday that its forces had "eliminated 15 terrorists" in the past day in Khan Younis, southern Gaza's biggest city not far from Rafah. It also reported fighting in central and northern Gaza.

Hamas's unprecedented attack on Israel on 7 October resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an agency tally based on official Israeli figures.

In response, Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,947 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Militants seized 250 hostages, 132 of whom are still in Gaza, but 29 are presumed dead, Israel has said.

'Humanitarian nightmare'

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington had "yet to see any evidence of serious planning" for an Israeli ground operation in Rafah.

Noting the city on the border with Egypt was also a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid, he added such an assault was "not something we'd support".

"To conduct such an operation right now with no planning and little thought... would be a disaster," Patel said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war erupted, had conveyed Washington's concerns to Netanyahu directly during talks this week in Jerusalem, he added.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said news of the coming Israeli push into Rafah was "alarming", and warned it "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare".

Israel's "extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, amounts to a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and a war crime", he said.

Ceasefire talks

On the ceasefire talks, Blinken insisted he still saw "space for agreement to be reached" to halt the fighting and bring home Israeli hostages, even after Netanyahu rejected what he labelled Hamas's "bizarre demands".

Egypt was set to host new talks with Qatari and Hamas negotiators in hopes of achieving "calm" in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

A Gaza-based Palestinian official close to the militant group later told AFP they expected negotiations to be "difficult", but said Hamas was "keen to reach a ceasefire".

The impact of the war has been felt widely, with violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas across the Middle East surging since October and drawing in US forces among others.

Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said on Friday it had fired "dozens of Katyusha rockets" into northern Israel shortly before midnight (2100 GMT on Thursday) in response to Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon, including the city of Nabatiyeh.

It came after an Israeli drone strike on a car in Nabatiyeh seriously wounded a Hezbollah commander on Thursday, sources on both sides of the border said.

On the same day, the U.S. military struck four unmanned surface vessels and seven mobile anti-ship cruise missiles that it said Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels had been set to launch against ships in the Red Sea.

The strike came after U.S. forces last week launched a wave of attacks on Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria following the killing of three U.S. troops in neighbouring Jordan.    (AFP)