Updated May 6, 2024 at 12:34 PM ET

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military on Monday ordered tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians in Rafah to evacuate, a move indicating Israel's offensive on Gaza's southmost area could be imminent.

People in Rafah were told to leave for an "expanded humanitarian area" in al-Mawasi and Khan Younis, areas north and northwest of the city. Israel's military sent out text and voice messages, and posted maps on social media with arrows instructing people where to flee.

Thousands of displaced families inside a United Nations-run school in the area told to evacuate were busy collecting their things Monday morning and unable to find any car or buggy to take them out of this part of Rafah.

"We don't know where to go," said a young woman, Tasneem Ishta, heading out of Rafah to the area of al-Mawasi. "Our pots, pans, utensils, pillows, clothes, food, drink — everything is in this home."

When asked how she feels, she answered: "I am very scared."

Hamas says there are around a quarter-million people in the Rafah area where evacuations were ordered by Israel.

Israel has been threatening an assault on Rafah for months to go after Hamas in the area, but Monday's evacuation orders put into motion the beginning stages of an expected attack that aid agencies and even Israel's allies have warned against.

President Biden has said Israel should not invade Rafah without a "credible" safety plan for the people sheltering there. He reiterated his position on Rafah in a call Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the White House said.

This comes after the latest round of negotiations for a cease-fire and hostage deal between Israel and Hamas appeared to remain stuck on key issues of concern. CIA Director William Burns reportedly took part in the Cairo talks over the weekend.

On Sunday, as a Hamas delegation was still in Egypt hammering out the deal being offered by Israel, Israel's government announced the closure of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network in Israel. Netanyahu also issued a statement saying it was Hamas that blocked a deal to release hostages, saying he gave Israel's negotiating team a very broad mandate although no Israeli negotiators were sent to Cairo over the weekend.

"We are not ready to accept a situation in which the Hamas battalions come out of their bunkers, take control of Gaza again, rebuild their military infrastructure, and return to threatening the citizens of Israel," he said, refusing a deal that demands Israeli troop withdrawal and an end to the war.

Meanwhile, senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement Sunday it was approaching the deal with "positive and flexible positions " but that its priority is "to stop the aggression against our people."

"What is the meaning of the agreement if a cease-fire is not its first outcome," he said, indicating the talks continued to be stuck on key points regarding Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza and whether a cease-fire and release of hostages would lead to a permanent cease-fire or a temporary truce.

Hours later, Hamas launched rockets from Rafah into Israel, killing four Israeli troops. Israel launched air strikes on Rafah, killing a number of civilians. Air strikes Sunday night into Monday killed at least 26 people in eight homes in Rafah, among them 11 children and eight women, according to Gaza's health ministry, which said there are still bodies under the rubble not in the death count. Israel closed its border there with southern Gaza, where humanitarian aid had been entering.

Israel insists an assault on Rafah is necessary to dismantle Hamas battalions operating there. Netanyahu last week vowed to enter the southern Gaza area "with or without a deal" with Hamas.

Qatar, a key mediator, says a Rafah offensive could further complicate the negotiations while Egypt, which borders Rafah, has consistently opposed an assault on the city, fearing mass displacement of Palestinians into its territory.

Since late March, Israeli air strikes have hit Rafah almost daily, killing nearly 300 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to hospital records and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

An elderly woman named Fatima Balah at a U.N.-run school in Rafah that was forced to evacuate told NPR Monday morning she's been displaced four times this war, and this will be her fifth time to move. She says she's seen nothing but hardship these past seven months of the war. She and her husband are ill, and she says she struggles to walk.

There are no warnings for people in Gaza, she says. "It's just direct air strikes and attacks on civilians, non-civilians, young or old. There's no one they don't target," she said, referring to the Israeli military.

NPR saw families piling their kids onto the backs of pickup trucks, but most were seen carrying their belongings by hand, dragging luggage behind them and leaving the area on foot, including several people pushing wounded relatives in wheelchairs.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has aid operations in Rafah, says the area of al-Mawasi where people were told to go to is overstretched and devoid of vital services.

"The aid system is bound to collapse, leaving those fleeing the advancing Israeli forces vulnerable to hunger and suffering," the NRC's Secretary General Jan Egeland said. "We urgently call on Hamas and Israel to agree to a deal that can end the bloodshed and avert further hostilities."

Briefing journalists on Monday, Israeli military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, said Israel's operation in Rafah would be of "limited scope." But Shoshani would not say whether this meant a broader incursion had begun or would continue at a later stage.

Israel has carried out evacuations in the Gaza Strip by voice messages and leaflets throughout the war, but Palestinians say Israeli orders posted online or dropped in flyers are unclear, indicating numbered block zones with imprecise locations on a general map.

Many Palestinians in Rafah have told NPR over the past several weeks they cannot leave or do not know where to go. Others said they will follow wherever leaflets tell them to flee, even if areas in the past that were meant to be safe were later bombed.

Khan Younis has been mostly destroyed by Israel's assault there and fighting with Hamas. There are also unexploded munitions in the area. Meanwhile, the region of al-Mawasi borders the sea and is lacking basic humanitarian services, including access to health care, water and fuel for generators or power.

For months, Israel has threatened to launch its ground offensive in Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's 2.2 million population are sheltered. Netanyahu says it is the only way to defeat Hamas. Israel believes at least four remaining Hamas battalions are still based in Rafah.

The U.S. and the U.N. have in the past weeks tried to discourage Israel from an incursion. Overnight, Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, told U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a phone call that "there was no choice left and this meant the start of the Israeli operation in Rafah."

Vincent Ni reported from Tel Aviv, Israel; Aya Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Anas Baba from Rafah, Gaza Strip.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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