The parents of more than 900 Israeli soldiers deployed in Gaza have signed a letter urging the military to call off an offensive in Rafah, calling it a “deadly trap” for their children.

“It is evident to anyone with common sense that after months of warnings and announcements regarding an incursion into Rafah, there are forces on the other side actively preparing to strike our troops,” says the letter, sent on 2 May.

“Our sons are physically and mentally exhausted,” adds the letter, addressed to the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi. “And now, you intend to send them into this perilous situation? … This appears to be nothing short of recklessness.”

The letter was initially signed by the parents of about 600 soldiers but in recent days the parents of another 300 have signed it.

More than 350,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah in the past week after Israeli warnings to evacuate before an imminent military assault that will open a bloody new phase of the eight-month conflict. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has rejected US pressure to hold off a full-scale attack on the city, where about 1 million Palestinians sought shelter after fleeing fighting earlier in the conflict.

“Rafah is a death trap,” said Anat, the mother of an Israeli special forces soldier deployed in Gaza. “Hamas had a lot of time to prepare the place for the killing of our soldiers. We are very concerned and worried.”

Israel has portrayed the city as Hamas’s last stronghold, saying it must invade in order to succeed in its goals of dismantling the group, killing its leadership and returning scores of hostages. Elsewhere in the war-ravaged territory Hamas has been able to reimpose its authority after IDF operations.

“Our apprehensions have materialised as we witness the military withdrawing promptly from an area, only for Hamas to swiftly regain control over it,” Anat said. “In the first months of the war we backed the whole operation. There was no other choice but to fight and get rid of Hamas in Gaza. But in the last months, we understand there is no clear plan.”

The IDF has summoned approximately 360,000 reservists to enlist in the battle against Hamas. It is not clear how many Israeli soldiers are stationed in Gaza.

Idit, the mother of an Israeli commander, said: “My son sent me a message on WhatsApp a few minutes ago. They are on the move to Rafah, he told me. And I’m terrified. We are not against the mission to fight Hamas, but entering Rafah does not justify this mission.”

Idit said her son did not want to enter Rafah, “but he will, because he is loyal to the army”.

More than 34,500 Palestinians have died during the Israeli offensive, which has caused massive destruction of housing, hospitals, mosques and schools. The war began in October when Hamas attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, about a quarter of them soldiers. More than 600 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

The Israeli authorities never responded to the missive from the soldiers’ parents. However, speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday, Halevi said he was responsible for providing answers to the families of troops who had been killed.

“I am the commander who sent your sons and daughters to the battle from which they did not return, and to the posts from which they were kidnapped,” Halevi said. “I carry with me every day the memory of the fallen, and I am responsible for answering the sharp questions that keep you awake.”

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