The Latest | Israel wants Rafah civilians to go to Gaza’s center ahead of southern offensive

Mar 13, 2024, 12:58 AM | Updated: 3:06 pm

Israel plans to tell 1.4 million Palestinians displaced in the southern city of Rafah to seek shelter in central Gaza ahead of a planned military offensive into the south.

Civilians would be directed toward “humanitarian islands” that would provide temporary housing, food, water and other necessities, Israel’s chief military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Wednesday. He did not say when this would occur, nor when the Rafah offensive might begin.

Humanitarian groups fear a military offensive into the densely crowded area would be a catastrophe. Israel says Hamas maintains four battalions in Rafah that it wants to destroy.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been forced from their homes, with many driven into sprawling tent camps. A quarter of Gaza’s population is starving, the United Nations has warned. Rafah is Gaza’s main entry point for aid.

More than 31,270 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, the territory’s Health Ministry says. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

Some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in southern Israel during the Hamas-led incursion on Oct. 7 that sparked the war. Around 250 people were abducted. Hamas is believed to still be holding about 100 hostages.


— Evangelical Christians are fierce Israel supporters. Now they are visiting as war-time volunteers.

— An aid ship is sailing to Gaza, where hundreds of thousands face starvation five months into war.

— Israeli drone strike in Lebanon kills a member of Hamas’ military wing.

— Former player on Palestinian national soccer team killed by Israeli strike in Gaza.

— A United Nations envoy says the finding that some hostages were victims of sexual violence doesn’t justify Israeli attacks.

— A Gaza family uprooted by war and grieving their losses shares a somber Ramadan meal in a tent.

— Find more of AP’s coverage at

Here’s the latest:


BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah vowed to keep pressure on Israeli forces along the border with Lebanon, saying Israel will eventually be pushed to stop its military operations in Gaza.

Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah have traded fire nearly every day since the war began.

In a televised speech Wednesday night, Hassan Nasrallah said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not achieved any of his war aims in Gaza.

“We are now in the sixth month and Israel is negotiating with Hamas,” Nasrallah said, later adding, “Hamas is negotiating not from a weak point, but is saying no and putting conditions.”

Indirect cease-fire negotiations between Hamas and Israel broke down last week. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until “total victory” over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages it abducted on Oct. 7. Hamas has said it will not release all of the captives until Israel ends its offensive, withdraws from Gaza and releases a large number of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

Nasrallah said the issue is not about swapping hostages for prisoners: “The resistance in Gaza wants a complete stop of the aggression, and we all support that.”

He sharply criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for seeking a temporary truce, after which Israel could resume its attacks.

“What the American administration is asked to do is to stop the war,” Nasrallah said. “Biden can do that with a stroke of a pen.”


TEL AVIV, Israel — The Israeli military cast doubt Wednesday on the breakdown of the death toll by the Health Ministry in Gaza, saying at least seven male names of the dead were listed as female.

Women and children make up around two-thirds of the 31,000 people killed in the war, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. The ministry’s tally does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

In previous wars, the ministry’s counts have held up to United Nations scrutiny, independent investigations and even Israel’s tallies.

On Wednesday, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, showed reporters a list of what he said were seven mislabeled names of the deceased in Gaza. He said these were just some of the examples of mislabeled names, without elaborating.

Five out of the seven identification numbers provided by the military were male names listed as female, according to a search of the registry by The Associated Press.

The two other ID numbers were listed as female and actually did have female names.

The AP could not independently verify whether the men were militants.


UNITED NATIONS – Israel’s military strike on a United Nations food distribution center is “another symbol of the fact that there is less and less respect for humanitarian work” and from the protection the U.N. flag should bring, the U.N. spokesman says.

Stephane Dujarric told reporters Wednesday that the U.N. has seen this lack of respect in Sudan, Congo and other hotspots as well where U.N. facilities have been attacked.

A U.N. staff member with UNRWA, the agency helping Palestinian refugees, paid “the ultimate price,” Dujarric said, losing his life while 22 others were wounded. The strike hit a UNRWA facility in the southern city of Rafah, and the agency’s head said its coordinates had been given to Israel.

Dujarric said he wouldn’t disagree with a questioner who said there has been a lack of accountability for the perpetrators of these attacks on the United Nations. The spokesperson said accountability may take a long time but it “needs to come.”

Dujarric reiterated the United Nations’ call for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, silencing the guns so the U.N. and its partners can scale up aid operations to those in need, and so Israeli hostages captured during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack can be released.

He said the U.N. is extremely worried about Israel’s plans for a large-scale military operation into Rafah, and has been raising its concerns and making what contingency plans it can.


TEL AVIV, Israel — Ahead of Israel’s planned offensive into Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah, the Israeli military said Wednesday it plans to direct a significant portion of the 1.4 million displaced Palestinians trapped in Rafah toward “humanitarian islands” in the center of the territory.

The fate of those in Rafah has been a major area of concern of Israel’s allies. Humanitarian groups have warned a Rafah offensive would be a catastrophe. Israel has said it is needed to achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas.

Israel’s chief military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said moving those in Rafah to the designated areas, which he said would be done in coordination with international actors, was a key part of the military’s preparations for its anticipated invasion of Rafah, where Israel says Hamas maintains four battalions it wants to destroy.

Hagari said those islands would provide temporary housing, food, water and other necessities to evacuated Palestinians. He did not say when Rafah’s evacuation would occur, nor when the Rafah offensive would begin, saying that Israel wanted the timing to be right operationally and to be coordinated with neighboring Egypt, which has said it does not want an influx of displaced Palestinians crossing its border.

At the start of the war, Israel directed evacuees to a slice of undeveloped land along Gaza’s Mediterranean coast that it designated as a safe zone. But aid groups said there were no real plans in place to receive large numbers of displaced there. Israeli strikes also targeted the area.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa’s foreign minister says her country’s citizens who fight in the Israeli armed forces or alongside them in Gaza will be arrested when they return home.

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor’s comments deepen the rift between the nations. South Africa has accused Israel of genocide at the United Nations’ top court. Pandor made the comments earlier this week at a Palestinian solidarity event attended by officials from South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party.

In December, the foreign ministry said that the South African government was concerned that some of its citizens or permanent residents had joined the Israeli military to fight in Gaza and warned that they could face prosecution if they hadn’t been granted permission to do so under South Africa’s arms control laws.

Those with dual South African-Israeli citizenship could be stripped of their South African citizenship, the foreign ministry said.

It’s not clear how many South African citizens have fought for Israel during the current war in Gaza. South Africa has a significant Jewish population of around 70,000 people.

The issue is close to the ruling ANC party and many South Africans, who for years have compared Israel’s policies against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with the treatment of non-whites in South Africa during its apartheid era of forced racial segregation and oppression.

Israel denies South Africa’s charge that it has enforced a form of apartheid on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and strongly rejects the charge by South Africa in the International Court of Justice that it is committing genocide in Gaza. That case may take years for a verdict.


JERUSALEM — The United Nations said Israeli forces on Wednesday hit a food distribution site in southern Gaza run by the U.N. agency that works with Palestinian refugees, killing one staff member from the agency and wounding 22 others.

The death brings to 165 the number of workers for the agency, known as UNRWA, killed during the past five months of conflict between Israel and Hamas, according to UNRWA.

Gaza’s health authorities said a total of five people were killed in the strike on the yard of an UNRWA warehouse.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said the agency shares the coordinates of its Gaza facilities with Israel every day, and called for an independent inquiry into attacks on its facilities.

“Today’s attack on one of the very few remaining UNRWA distribution centers in the Gaza Strip comes as food supplies are running out, hunger is widespread and, in some areas, turning into famine,’’ Lazzarini said.

“Since this war began, attacks against U.N. facilities, convoys and personnel have become commonplace in blatant disregard to international humanitarian law,” he said.

Israel has accused 12 of UNRWA’s thousands of employees of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks,. Last week, it escalated the accusations, alleging 450 UNRWA employees were members of militant groups in Gaza, though it has provided no evidence.


NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus’ foreign minister says a U.S. initiative to build a pier off Gaza for large-scale aid deliveries to the territory by sea will eventually be folded into the Cyprus-Gaza maritime corridor that’s currently running.

Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said Wednesday although the two initiatives are now separate, all aid reaching Gaza by sea will eventually have as its single departure point the Cypriot port of Larnaca.

That’s where all the aid will be collected and loaded onto ships after undergoing thorough security screening by Cypriot customs officials, with personnel from Israel and other countries acting as observers to ensure the integrity of the process.

Having such a single departure point would address the Israelis’ security concerns regarding inspections of all cargo to ensure that nothing is loaded on ships that Hamas could use against Israeli troops, Kombos said.

Ships making the trip from Cyprus to Gaza won’t be escorted by military vessels for security reasons because monitoring can be done through other means, the foreign minister said.

Kombos said aid that will reach Gaza by ship in the coming weeks will use the US charity World Central Kitchen’s distribution network in the Palestinian territory. But Cypriot authorities and other partners are looking to expand those networks on the ground in Gaza to include United Nations agencies like the World Food Program.


NICOSIA, Cyprus — A second vessel being loaded with aid for Gaza is currently docked at Larnaca port and is preparing to depart, Cyprus’ foreign minister said Wednesday.

The ship will begin its journey to Gaza once the ship operated by the Spanish charity Open Arms, which is now at sea, reaches the territory in the next few days, offloads and distributes its 200 tons of food, the minister said.

Minister Constantinos Kombos said Wednesday the larger vessel will carry more aid than the Open Arms ship, but he wouldn’t say when it would depart exactly. He said that depends on whether all goes smoothly with the delivery of the Open Arms shipment and on weather conditions.

The vessel will tow a barge loaded with aid as well as carrying some in its internal bays. It will offload at the same jetty being built by the U.S. charity World Central Kitchen and where the Open Arms ship will offload.

Kombos said what’s key is to ensure that seaborne aid deliveries are done in at specific intervals so that World Central Kitchen’s network in Gaza isn’t overwhelmed with aid before it can complete distribution to its various kitchen locations.

The official said the idea is to imbue Gaza’s Palestinian population with the understanding that such deliveries will happen at a steady, continuous pace in order to allay concerns that this would be a short-run venture and avoid a potentially dangerous rush of people at the collection point.

According to Kombos, many countries are lining up to either contribute aid or assist in the operation. The idea for the Cypriot initiative for establishing such a maritime corridor is to keep the effort on a state level and to avoid private donations at this time.


RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s Health Ministry says the bodies of 88 people killed in Israel’s bombardment have been brought to local hospitals in the last 24 hours.

That brings the war’s overall death toll among Palestinians to 31,272, according to the ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its tallies.

The ministry says around two-thirds of the dead are women and children, and that the real overall toll is higher because bodies are buried under the rubble or in areas that medics can’t access.

The ministry says over 73,000 people have been wounded in the war.

Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because the militants fight in dense, residential areas. The Israeli military says it has killed over 13,000 Hamas fighters, without providing evidence.

The war erupted after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostage. Hamas is still holding around 100 hostages, and the remains of around 30 others, after freeing most of the rest in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners last year.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — Another two Palestinians were killed during confrontations with Israeli forces overnight, bringing the overall toll to six over the past 24 hours.

Two men were killed during an Israeli raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin. Hamas identified one of them as a member of its armed wing.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that it opened fire on Palestinians in Jenin after they tried to plant roadside bombs.

Separately, Israeli forces shot and killed a 13-year-old Palestinian who launched fireworks at them late Tuesday in the Shuafat refugee camp, a built-up area on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Security forces also shot and killed two Palestinians after police say they threw firebombs at a highway near the city.

On Wednesday morning, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian after he stabbed and wounded two security personnel at a checkpoint south of Jerusalem.


RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian soccer federation says former national team member Mohammed Barakat, 39, was killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip.

It says he was killed in a strike Monday on a residential building in the southern city of Khan Younis.

Affectionately known as “the lion” by fellow players, Barakat had played for the national team as well as a number of clubs in Gaza, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He began his professional career in 2015 with Shabab Khanyounis, where he became the first player in Gaza to score 100 goals with a single team.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 31,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. The Palestinian Football Association says 158 athletes, including 91 soccer players from various divisions, are among those killed.

The war began when Hamas-led militants stormed into Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostage.


BEIRUT — An Israeli drone strike Wednesday targeting a car in southern Lebanon near the coastal city of Tyre killed a member of Hamas and at least one other person.

Hamas identified the member who was killed as Hadi Mustafa. Lebanese state media said he is from the Rashidieh refugee camp near Tyre, where Hamas has a notable presence.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the other person killed was a Syrian citizen who was on a motorcycle near the targeted car.

The strike comes a day after top Hamas official Khalil al-Hayyeh met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, and days after talks between Hamas and Israel for a truce in the war in Gaza ahead of the holy month of Ramadan broke down. The United States and other governments continue to scramble to prevent the ongoing war in the Palestinian enclave from spilling over into Lebanon as Hezbollah militants and the Israeli military to trade fire.


JERUSALEM — Israeli police say a Palestinian stabbed and wounded two people at a checkpoint near Jerusalem before being shot Wednesday.

Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said the two people who were stabbed were in “mild to moderate condition.” Israeli police said the two people who were stabbed were members of the security forces, without elaborating. An Associated Press reporter saw the body of the attacker.

Violence has surged in the occupied West Bank since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered the war in Gaza. At least 427 Palestinians have been killed there, mostly during confrontations with Israeli forces, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often soar during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Sunday, over access to a major holy site in Jerusalem.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, as well as east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories for their future state.


JERUSALEM — Israeli forces killed at least three Palestinians in two separate clashes overnight, including 13-year-old Rami Hamdan al-Halhuli, who had hurled fireworks at the paramilitary Border Police during a violent protest. The Palestinian Authority said he was shot dead late Tuesday in the Shuafat refugee camp, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Israeli police say a member of the paramilitary Border Police fired “a single shot” toward a suspect who aimed fireworks in their direction during confrontations in Shuafat. It says the suspect was “apprehended, arrested and transferred for medical treatment.”

The Border Police also said they opened fire at five Palestinians who were hurling firebombs at vehicles on a highway near Jerusalem late Tuesday. It says they were arrested and transferred for medical treatment.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says Israeli forces killed two Palestinians, ages 16 and 23, and wounded three in the village of al-Jib, near Jerusalem. It says they were brought to a hospital in the nearby city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered.

The two sides appeared to be describing the same incident. Police could not immediately be reached for comment.

At least 427 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the war, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, mainly during confrontations with Israeli forces.


JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said an aid convoy has for the first time entered the Gaza Strip through a crossing in the war-ravaged northern half of the territory.

Six trucks entered Gaza late Tuesday through a gate in the border fence, carrying goods from the World Food Program, the military said. It described the delivery as a test run and said the Israeli government would review the results.

Israel alleges that Hamas is commandeering aid. At the same time, Israel is under growing international pressure to ease restrictions on aid entering Gaza, particularly the northern half of the territory. Up to now, aid convoys entered Gaza from its southern end and had to make their way through areas of fighting and large, desperate crowds of Palestinians.

On Tuesday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief said Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war and accused it of blocking overland routes that are the best way to get food to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians facing famine.

The United States and other countries have resorted to workarounds, such as air drops and setting up a sea route, but aid officials say land deliveries remain the most efficient.

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The Latest | Israel wants Rafah civilians to go to Gaza’s center ahead of southern offensive