ISRAELI strikes killed at least 48 people in southern and central Gaza overnight, half of them women and children, health officials said on Thursday.

It comes as Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz repeated his pledge that unless Hamas agrees to release the remaining hostages, Israel will launch a ground offensive into Gaza’s southern-most town, Rafah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 10.

More than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is crowded into Rafah after fleeing fighting and bombardment elsewhere in the territory.

The National: People inspect damage to their homes following air strikes in RafahPeople inspect damage to their homes following air strikes in Rafah (Image: Getty Images)Israel has said it will evacuate them before attacking, although it is not clear where they would go, with much of the rest of the tiny Mediterranean enclave consumed in combat — raising fears civilian casualties could spiral in an Israeli assault that has already killed more than 29,400 people.

The heads of 13 UN agencies and five other aid groups issued a joint plea for a ceasefire late on Wednesday, warning an attack on Rafah will bring “mass casualties” and could “deal a death blow” to the humanitarian operation bringing aid to Palestinians, which “is already on its knees”.

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Earlier this week, the World Food Programme had to halt food deliveries to northern Gaza because of increasing chaos.

The foreign ministers of 26 European countries on Thursday called for a pause in fighting leading to a longer ceasefire.

They urged Israel not to take military action in Rafah “that would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation”.

The National:  (Image: Getty Images)

The UK, meanwhile, has seen chaos in Westminster after Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle allowed a debate on a Labour amendment to an SNP opposition-day motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which meant that the SNP motion was not voted on.

Several MPs have called for the Speaker’s resignation, after reports emerged that he had been “bullied and intimidated” into the decision by Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Rising tensions in the West Bank

Tensions have also been rising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen on Thursday opened fire on morning traffic at a motorway checkpoint, Israeli police said. An Israeli man in his 20s was killed and five others injured, including a pregnant woman.

Security forces killed two of the gunmen and detained the third, police said.

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Hamas praised the attack in Jerusalem and said it was a “natural response” to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and raids in the West Bank and called for more attacks until they can achieve a “fully sovereign” Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The militant group did not claim responsibility for the attack.

Since the war began, the Israeli army has carried out near-nightly raids across the West Bank, arresting more than 3200 Palestinians, including 1350 it says are suspected Hamas members.

Rafah under attack

Meanwhile, a flurry of seven Israeli strikes hit Rafah early on Thursday, one of them flattening a large mosque and devastating much of the surrounding block.

Footage from the scene showed al-Farouq Mosque flattened to the ground, with its concrete domes tumbled around it and nearby buildings shattered.

Another strike hit a residential home in Rafah sheltering the al-Shaer family, killing at least four people, including a mother and her child.

The National: A Palestinian mourns relatives killed by Israeli airstrikes in a morgue in RafahA Palestinian mourns relatives killed by Israeli airstrikes in a morgue in Rafah (Image: AP Photo)Strikes in central Gaza overnight killed 44 people, including 14 children and eight women, according to hospital officials.

Almost 30,000 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed since the October 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1200 people and took around 250 people hostage.