A protesters faces an Israeli policeman during a demonstration by families and supporters of Israelis taken hostage by Palestinian militants in Gaza in the October 7 attacks, in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 18, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas group. Foto: AFP

GAZA – Heavy clashes and bombardment rocked the southern Gaza city of Rafah Saturday, as the United Nations said 800,000 people had been “forced to flee” Israel’s assault on Hamas militants there.

Israel’s military said air strikes hit more than 70 targets across Gaza while ground troops conducted “targeted raids” in eastern Rafah, killing 50 militants and locating dozens of tunnel shafts.

Philippe Lazzarini of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said that since Israel’s Rafah operation began, there had been a massive movement of people.

“800,000 people are on the road having been forced to flee since the Israeli forces started the military operation in the area on 6 May”, the UNRWA chief said on X.

He said people were fleeing to areas without water supplies or adequate sanitation.

It came as political divisions in Israel’s war cabinet burst into the open on Saturday night, with minister Benny Gantz saying he would quit unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a post-war plan for the Gaza Strip.

Gantz called for six goals to be met, including establishing a multinational civilian administration for Gaza.

Netanyahu hit back, calling the threat “washed-up words” that would mean “defeat for Israel”.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said it fired a barrage of rockets towards Israel’s port of Ashkelon and targeted an Israeli command centre at the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Late Saturday, Israel’s military issued new evacuation orders for parts of northern Gaza, saying militants in the area had fired rockets at Israel.

Earlier, an AFP reporter said air strikes and artillery pounded eastern Rafah as warplanes overflew the city on Gaza’s border with Egypt.

More than 10 days into what the army called a “limited” Rafah operation that sparked the exodus, fighting has also flared again in northern Gaza.

Israel said in early January it had dismantled Hamas’s command structure in the north, but the army said Hamas — whose October 7 attack sparked the war — had been “in complete control here in Jabalia until we arrived a few days ago”.

Hamas slammed what it called Israel’s “escalating crimes of the occupation” and “intensified brutal raids” on Jabalia, saying they had killed dozens of civilians and wounded hundreds.

Aid groups say Israel’s Rafah incursion, launched despite overwhelming international opposition and as mediators were hoping for a breakthrough in stalled truce talks, has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis.

With key land crossings closed or operating at limited capacity because of the fighting, some aid began entering Gaza via a temporary US-built floating pier.

The Israeli army said 310 pallets began moving ashore in “the first entry of humanitarian aid through the floating pier”.

Satellite pictures showed more than a dozen trucks lining up Saturday on its approach road.

In the coming days, around 500 tonnes of aid are expected to be delivered via the pier, according to US Central Command.

But UN agencies and humanitarian aid groups have warned sea or air deliveries cannot replace more efficient truck convoys into Gaza, where the UN has repeatedly warned of looming famine.

The Rafah crossing, a vital conduit for humanitarian aid, has been closed since Israel launched its operation in the city.

The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 35,386 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

The toll includes at least 83 deaths over the past 24 hours, said a ministry statement on Saturday.

Out of 252 people taken hostage from Israel during the October 7 attack, 124 remain held in Gaza including 37 the army says are dead.

The army said Saturday that troops had recovered the body of hostage Ron Benjamin in the same Gaza operation that saw the bodies of three other hostages killed on October 7 retrieved late Thursday.

Israel has vowed to defeat remaining Hamas forces in Rafah, which it says is the Iran-backed group’s last bastion.

Palestinian sources in Rafah said Israeli forces were operating in the Al-Salam and Jenina neighbourhoods and on the Philadelphi route along the Egyptian border.

“Troops are advancing and retreating around these areas,” a security source said.

Cairo, which has been involved in mediation efforts, says a potential Israeli takeover of Philadelphi could violate the two countries’ landmark 1979 peace deal.

Meanwhile, Israel said it killed two senior Islamic Jihad militants in air strikes in the northern West Bank and in Rafah.

In northern Gaza’s Beit Lahia, witnesses reported air strikes near Kamal Adwan hospital on Saturday.

Its director Hussam Abu Safiya said Friday the facility had received “large numbers” of casualties from nearby Jabalia and was running low on supplies.

Its fuel supply was “barely enough for a few days”, he told AFP.

The World Health Organization has received no medical supplies in Gaza since the Rafah operation began, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said Friday.

On the diplomatic front, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was heading to the region.

Sullivan will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Political divisions inside Israel were highlighted Saturday when Gantz said he and his party would quit the government unless Netanyahu approved a post-war plan for Gaza.

In a televised address, Gantz gave a June 8 deadline for “an action plan” for Gaza, including defeating Hamas, returning the hostages and ensuring Israeli security control over Gaza.

Netanyahu dismissed Gantz’s comments as “washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of the war and a defeat for Israel, the abandoning of most of the hostages, leaving Hamas intact and the establishment of a Palestinian state”. – AFP