RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel ordered new evacuations in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah on Saturday, forcing tens of thousands more people to leave as it prepared to expand its military operation closer to what is considered Gaza’s last refuge, in defiance of growing pressure from close ally the United States and others.

As pro-Palestinian protests continued against the war, Israel’s military also said it was moving into an area of devastated northern Gaza where it asserted that the Hamas militant group has regrouped after seven months of fighting.

Israel has now evacuated the eastern third of Rafah, and top military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said dozens of militants had been killed there as “targeted operations continued.” The United Nations has warned that the planned full-scale Rafah invasion would further cripple humanitarian operations and cause a surge in civilian casualties.

Rafah borders Egypt near the main aid entry points, which already are affected. Israeli troops have captured the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, forcing it to shut down. Egypt has refused to coordinate with Israel the delivery of aid though the crossing because of “the unacceptable Israeli escalation,” the state-owned Al Qahera News television channel reported Saturday, citing an unnamed official.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he won’t provide offensive weapons to Israel for Rafah. On Friday, his administration said there was “reasonable” evidence that Israel had breached international law protecting civilians — Washington’s strongest statement yet on the matter.

In response, Ophir Falk, foreign policy adviser to Israel’s prime minister, told The Associated Press that Israel acts in compliance with the laws of armed conflict and the army takes extensive measures to avert civilian casualties, including alerting people to military operations via phone calls and text messages.

More than 1.4 million Palestinians — half of Gaza’s population — have been sheltering in Rafah, most after fleeing Israel’s offensives elsewhere. The latest evacuations are forcing some people to return north where areas are devastated from previous Israeli attacks. Aid agencies estimate that 110,000 had left before Saturday’s order that adds 40,000.

“Do we wait until we all die on top of each other? So we’ve decided to leave. It’s better,” said Rafah resident Hanan al-Satari as people rushed to load mattresses, water tanks and other belongings onto vehicles.

“The Israeli army does not have a safe area in Gaza. They target everything,” said Abu Yusuf al-Deiri, earlier displaced from Gaza City.

Many people have been displaced multiple times. There are few places left to go. Some fleeing fighting earlier in the week erected tent camps in the city of Khan Younis — half destroyed in an earlier Israeli offensive — and the central city of Deir al-Balah, straining the remaining infrastructure.

Some Palestinians are being sent to what Israel has called humanitarian safe zones along the Muwasi coastal strip, which is already packed with about 450,000 people in squalid conditions. The garbage-strewn camp lacks basic facilities.

Georgios Petropoulos, an official with the U.N. humanitarian agency in Rafah, said aid workers had no supplies to help people set up in new locations. “We simply have no tents, we have no blankets, no bedding, none of the items that you would expect a population on the move to be able to get from the humanitarian system,” he said.

The World Food Program has warned it would run out of food for distribution in southern Gaza by Saturday, Petropoulos said — a further challenge as parts of Gaza face what the WFP chief has called “full-blown famine.” Aid groups have said fuel will be depleted soon, forcing hospitals to shut down critical operations and halting trucks delivering aid.

Heavy fighting was also underway in northern Gaza, where Hagari said the air force was carrying out airstrikes. Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee told Palestinians in Jabaliya, Beit Lahiya and surrounding areas to head to shelters in the west of Gaza City, warning that Israel would strike with “great force.”

Northern Gaza was the first target of Israel’s ground offensive launched after Hamas and other militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking another 250 hostage. They still hold some 100 captives and the remains of more than 30. Hamas on Saturday said hostage Nadav Popplewell had died after being wounded in an Israeli airstrike a month ago. Hamas provided no evidence for the claim.

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensives have killed more than 34,800 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants in its figures. Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing it of embedding in densely populated residential areas.

Civil authorities in Gaza gave more details of the mass graves that the Health Ministry announced earlier in the week at Shifa hospital, the largest hospital in northern Gaza and the target of an earlier Israeli offensive. Authorities said most of the 80 bodies had been patients who died from lack of care. The Israeli army said “any attempt to blame Israel for burying civilians in mass graves is categorically false.”

At least 19 people, including eight women and eight children, were killed overnight in central Gaza in strikes that hit the areas of Zawaida, Maghazi and Deir al-Balah, according to Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital and an AP journalist who counted the bodies.

“Children, what is the fault of the children who died?” one relative said. A woman stroked the face of one of the children lying on the ground.

Tens of thousands of people attended the latest anti-government protest in Israel on Saturday evening. Another round of cease-fire talks in Cairo ended earlier this week without a breakthrough.

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Sam Mednick reported from Tel Aviv and Samy Magdy reported from Cairo. Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war



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