Deir al-Balah, May 28 (AP) Israeli strikes on Rafah have killed at least 16 Palestinians, first responders said Tuesday, as residents reported an escalation of fighting in the southern Gaza city.

An Israeli incursion launched in early May has caused nearly 1 million to flee from Rafah, most of whom have already been displaced in the war between Israel and Hamas, and who are now seeking refuge in squalid tent camps and war-ravaged areas.

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The United States and other close allies of Israel have warned against a full-fledged offensive in the city, with the Biden administration saying it would cross a red line and refusing to provide offensive arms for such an undertaking. On Friday, the International Court of Justice called on Israel to halt its Rafah offensive, an order it has no power to enforce.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead, saying Israeli forces must go into Rafah in order to dismantle Hamas and return hostages taken in the October 7 attack that triggered the war.

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The latest strikes occurred in the same area where Israel targeted what it said was a Hamas compound on Sunday night. That strike ignited a fire in a camp for displaced Palestinians and killed at least 45 people, according to local health officials, sparking worldwide outrage.

Netanyahu said there was a “tragic mishap" on Sunday and the military said it was investigating.

Strikes overnight killed a total of 16 people in the Tel al-Sultan neighbourhood in northwest Rafah, according to the Palestinian Civil Defence and the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Israel says it is carrying out limited operations in eastern Rafah along the Gaza-Egypt border. But residents reported heavy bombardment overnight in western parts of Rafah as well.

“It was a night of horror,” said Abdel-Rahman Abu Ismail, a Palestinian from Gaza City who has been sheltering in Tel al-Sultan since December. He said he heard “constant sounds” of explosions overnight and into Tuesday morning, with fighter jets and drones flying over the area.

He said it reminded him of the Israeli invasion of of his neighbourhood of Shijaiyah in Gaza City, where Israel launched a heavy bombing campaign before sending in ground forces in late 2023. “We saw this before,” he said.

Sayed al-Masri, a Rafah resident, said many families have been forced to flee their homes and shelters, with most heading for the crowded Mawasi area, where giant tent camps have been set up on a barren coastline, or to Khan Younis, a southern city that suffered heavy damage during months of fighting.

“The situation is worsening” in Rafah, al-Masri said.

Gaza's Health Ministry said two medical facilities in Tel al-Sultan have been taken out of service because of intense bombing nearby. Medical Aid for Palestinians, a charity operating throughout the territory, said the Tel al-Sultan medical centre and the Indonesian Field Hospital were under lockdown, with medics, patients and displaced people trapped inside.

Most of Gaza's hospitals are no longer functioning. The Kuwait Hospital in Rafah shut down Monday after a strike near its entrance killed two health workers.

The war began when Hamas and other militants burst into southern Israel in a surprise attack on October 7, killing some 1,200 civilians and abducting around 250. More than 100 were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Israel responded to the October 7 attack with a massive air, land and sea offensive that has killed over 36,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its count. Around 80 per cent of Gaza's population of 2.3 million has been displaced and United Nations officials say parts of the territory are experiencing famine. (AP)

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