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Fears grow in Gazan city of Rafah ahead of potential Israel ground operation

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(TEL AVIV and LONDON) — Before war erupted between Israel and Hamas in October, the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip was home to around 250,000 people. Now, the population has swelled to an estimated 1.4 million, according to the United Nations, and residents are living in fear of a potentially major Israeli military ground operation on the horizon.

Rafah has been earmarked as the next area to be targeted by Israeli ground forces, similar to what has already been seen in Gaza City and Khan Younis further north.

“We will fight until complete victory and this includes a powerful action also in Rafah after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“The areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah are — plenty of areas there, but we are working out a detailed plan to do so, and that’s what we’ve done up to now,” Netanyahu told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “We’re not, we’re not cavalier about this. This is part of our war effort to get civilians out of harm’s way. It’s part of Hamas’ effort to keep them in harm’s way. But we’ve so far succeeded, and we’re going to succeed again. Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, lose the war, keep Hamas there.”

Last week, Netanyahu requested the Israeli military to come up with a “dual plan” to evacuate the civilian population in Rafah before “disbanding” Hamas battalions allegedly located there, according to his office.

The Israeli military has not yet issued a formal evacuation order to the residents of Rafah, which was once thought of as a safe zone amid the fighting in Gaza. Many of those currently living there have been displaced more than once since the war began, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Satellite imagery obtained by ABC News shows a sprawling tent city in Rafah that has expanded around the outskirts to accommodate the refugee population.

The Israeli military launched a daring raid in Rafah that freed two Israeli hostages from an apartment building where they were held captive in the city on Monday. A wave of Israeli airstrikes accompanying the raid killed dozens of people, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health. Around 100 hostages are still believed to be held by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

Abdullah Abu Adra, a resident living in Rafah, told ABC News an explosion caused part of his roof to fall in. He said his hand was injured, and, although his children were not hurt, he said they “did not stop crying.” The sound of bombing was “everywhere” during the strikes, he said.

“Where shall we go? Where shall we go?” Abu Adra said. “By God, it is a terrifying thing. To be honest, by God, they say there is still safe areas. Where is it?”

In response to criticism about the impact of the war on the civilian population, Israel has said Hamas deliberately hides among civilians and bears responsibility for the casualties. Hamas has denied that its group members shelter behind civilians.

The United Nations’ top court has ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent the deaths of civilians during its military operations in Gaza. Meanwhile, the United States has publicly called on Israel to come up with a realistic plan to protect civilians if its ground forces enter Rafah, and multiple aid agencies have sounded the alarm over the potentially “catastrophic” consequences. Other countries — including the U.K., France, Germany and Canada — have issued warnings and urged for a cease-fire.

ABC News has verified several videos showing columns of people leaving Rafah in anticipation of the possible assault.

“Military operations in Rafah could lead to a slaughter in Gaza,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said in a statement Tuesday. “They could also leave an already fragile humanitarian operation at death’s door … The international community has been warning against the dangerous consequences of any ground invasion in Rafah. The Government of Israel cannot continue to ignore these calls.”

Negotiations between the warring sides on a potential cease-fire and hostage deal currently were held in Egypt this week, offering to a glimmer of hope for the people of Rafah. But many are still fearing the worst.

“I feel that it’s over,” Rama Radmi Abu Al-Ainin, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl staying in one of Rafah’s many crowded shelters, told ABC News on Wednesday. “That now any second we will become martyrs.”

ABC News’ Samy Zayara contributed to this report.

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