Amid international pressure to hold off advancing troops toward Rafah, Israel has begun preparations to evacuate civilians from the southern Gaza town.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday evening that he instructed Israel Defense Forces to prepare to evacuate the civilians in Rafa, located near the Egyptian border, before dismantling the Hamas battalions there.
The southernmost town of the Gaza Strip is the last major city under Hamas control and is bursting with an estimated 1 million refugees who fled there from other areas in the Strip.
“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war of eliminating Hamas by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah,” the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement on Friday evening.
“On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat.”
“Therefore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF and the security establishment to submit to the Cabinet a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions,” the statement read.
Officials from the U.S., the United Nations and Europe have publicly called on Israel to hold off with any military operations in Rafah, fearing massive numbers of civilians may be harmed.
In recent days, Israel has increased the number of airstrikes in the area, including targeted eliminations of operatives in Hamas’ police force, in a possible effort to prepare a broader offensive.
Last week, Netanyahu said the IDF had destroyed 18 of the original 24 Hamas battalions in the Gaza Strip during the fighting so far. The other two remaining battalions are located in near the four refugee camps and the town of Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu told the War Cabinet that an operation in Rafah would need to be completed before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which will begin in one month’s time, Israeli Channel 12 news reported on Friday.
During the cabinet meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi stated that Isreali forces were prepared for such an operation but were awaiting the government’s instructions on what to do with the refugees in the area, and its policy regarding the Philadelphi Corridor along the Egyptian border.
Over the weekend, several nations reiterated their strong concerns over a possible Israeli advance on Rafah.
Egypt has reportedly threatened to cancel its peace deal with Israel if an Israeli offensive would push Gazans to storm its border.
“There is limited space and great risk in putting Rafah under further military escalation due to the growing number of Palestinians there,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday, warning of “dire consequences.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who has been highly critical of Israel’s conduct in the war, wrote on 𝕏: “Another bloodbath in Gaza cannot be allowed. An Israeli attack on 1.5m Palestinians already facing inhumane conditions in Rafah will cause a massacre of innocent people.”
Officials from Biden's administration have also expressed skepticism regarding the lack of Israeli planning for an operation in Rafah. Such an operation would have no support from the U.S. given the current circumstances, U.S. National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said.
Similarly, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said: “Conducting such an operation at this time without planning... would be a disaster.”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the situation in Rafah “unfathomable,” and said that an IDF offensive would be “a humanitarian catastrophe in the making. The people of Gaza cannot vanish into thin air.”#
בהכוונה מודיעינית של שב״כ ואמ״ן, כלי-טיס של חיל-האוויר חיסלו מוקדם יותר היום במרחב רפיח, את אחמד אליעקובי, פעיל חמאס אשר היה אחראי על סידורי האבטחה של בכירי חמאס ושימש כמנהל בכיר בבולשת של מחוז רפיח. pic.twitter.com/BC9hskC0fR— Israeli Air Force (@IAFsite) February 10, 2024
Meanwhile, the IDF continued a recent spate of targeted eliminations in the southern town. In a joint statement with Shin Bet, the IDF announced on Saturday evening that it had eliminated Ahmad al-Yakubi, “a Hamas operative who was responsible for the security arrangements for senior Hamas officials and served as a senior director in the Rafah District Police Department.”
“In addition, Iman Rantisi, a military operative and a senior in the investigation department of Hamas’s general security branch, was also eliminated. Another policeman in the Rafah District Police Department was killed.”
This latest strike followed a similar attack two days earlier, which on Wednesday killed the head of Hamas’ police special forces unit, Majdi Abd al-Aal.
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The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.