Israeli forces geared up on Friday for a ground assault on Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence further north are trapped in desperate conditions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the military had been told to come up with a plan to evacuate civilians but aid agencies warned that a military offensive in such a densely populated area could end up killing large numbers of innocent people.
"There is a sense of growing anxiety, growing panic in Rafah because basically people have no idea where to go," said Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday Israel's response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants was "over the top" and Washington said it would not support any military operation mounted in Rafah without due consideration for civilians.
More than a million people driven southwards by four months of Israeli bombing of Gaza are packed into Rafah and surrounding areas on the coastal enclave's border with Egypt, which has reinforced the frontier, fearing an exodus.
Netanyahu's office said four Hamas battalions were in Rafah and Israel could not achieve its goal of eliminating the Islamist militants while they remained there. Civilians should be evacuated from the combat zone, it said.
"Therefore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the security establishment to submit to the Cabinet a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions."
The statement, issued two days after Netanyahu rejected a Hamas ceasefire proposal that also envisaged the release of hostages held by the Palestinian militant group, gave no further details.
Tal Heinrich, a spokesman for Netanyahu, told Fox News that "if Israel's hands are tied by the international community, or if we take the pressure for Hamas actions" it would be "an open invitation for more terrorism worldwide."
The United Nations said Palestinian civilians in Rafah needed to be protected, but there should not be any forced mass displacement, which it said went against international law.
"We're extremely worried about the fate of civilians in Rafah," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The Palestinian Presidency said what it described as Netanyahu's plans for a military escalation in Rafah aimed to displace the Palestinian people from their land.
"Taking this step threatens security and peace in the region and the world. It crosses all red lines," said the office of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that exerts partial self-rule in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Egypt, fearing that Palestinians could be forced en masse out of the enclave, has sent about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza.
(Cover: This handout picture released by the Israeli army on February 9, 2024, shows Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. /CFP)