UNICEF warns escalation in Rafah would mark 'devastating turn' in Gaza war

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UNICEF is warning that military escalation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah would mark a “devastating turn” in the war between Israel and Hamas, as Israel moves toward an expected ground invasion in the area.

“An escalation of the fighting in Rafah, which is already straining under the extraordinary number of people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza, will mark another devastating turn in a war that has reportedly killed over 27,000 people – most of them women and children,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a statement Thursday.

UNICEF said 600,000 children are among the more than 1 million people in the densely populated city in the southern Gaza Strip. Many fled to Rafah as fighting erupted in northern areas of Gaza. If the region’s remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems are destroyed, hunger and disease “will skyrocket,” the U.N. organization warned.

“I appeal to all parties to the conflict to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law. That includes taking the utmost care to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure, to meet civilians’ essential needs and facilitate rapid, safe, and unimpeded humanitarian access,” Russell said, reupping UNICEF’s call for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

“A humanitarian ceasefire will save lives. It will allow for the expansion of the humanitarian response, and help provide the best protection for children whose lives and futures are hanging in the balance,” the statement said.

Since Hamas invaded Israel in its Oct. 7 surprise attack that killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage, Israel has embarked on a deadly and destructive counteroffensive. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said the Palestinian death toll is now close to 28,000.

UNICEF’s message comes as Israel struck Rafah on Thursday, even as the Biden administration and other aid agencies urged the country to not expand its offensive in the territory where many people are seeking shelter. Airstrikes hit residential buildings in the southern city overnight and into Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the military to evacuate the population of Rafah ahead of an expected invasion. Israel said Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold and sending troops to the area is a necessary part of its war plan.

An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians have fled to the town after being displaced due to the war elsewhere in Gaza.

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