Senior Hamas official decries 'dangerous escalation'

IDF tells 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate eastern Rafah ahead of planned offensive

Military uses flyers, texts, phone calls to call on Gazans to leave specific areas; Gallant to US: Israel has ‘no choice’ but to launch operation in Strip’s southernmost city

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Israeli army flyers call on Gazans to evacuate eastern Rafah ahead of expected offensive, May 6, 2024. (STRINGER/AFPTV/AFP)

The Israeli military on Monday morning began calling on Palestinians to evacuate the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip that are close to the Israeli border, ahead of a planned ground offensive in the area.

The civilians were being called to move to an expanded humanitarian zone in the al-Mawasi and Khan Younis areas of southern Gaza.

At 8 a.m. the Israel Defense Forces started to drop flyers in eastern Rafah, send text messages, and make phone calls to Palestinians with instructions on the areas that need to be evacuated, and which routes to take to a designated humanitarian zone.

The evacuation order only applied to some of the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, and not the entire city in southern Gaza for now, although Israel has vowed to operate throughout the area, considered to be Hamas’s last major redoubt.

Israeli officials have said the terror group has six remaining battalions in the Gaza Strip, four of them in Rafah: Yabna (South), Shaboura (North), Tel Sultan (West) and East Rafah. Two more Hamas battalions remain in central Gaza, in the Nuseirat and Deir al-Balah camps.

A senior official in Hamas said the evacuation order was a “dangerous escalation that will have consequences.”

This picture taken on April 30, 2024, shows tents at a camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (AFP)

“The US administration, alongside the occupation, bears responsibility for this terrorism,” the official, Sami Abu Zuhri, told Reuters, referring to Israel’s alliance with Washington.

More than a million Palestinian civilians are sheltering in Rafah. Around 100,000 were estimated to be in the zone where the IDF called for evacuation.

An IDF map of the civilian evacuation of Rafah ahead of the planned offensive, released May 6, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

A map published by the IDF showed that the zones that are to be evacuated included the Rafah crossing area on the Egyptian border. Three of Hamas’s Rafah battalions — Yabna, Shaboura, and East Rafah — are also located in the area that was being evacuated.

The military said in a statement that “in accordance with the approval of the political echelon, the IDF calls on the population, which is under the control of Hamas, to temporarily evacuate from the eastern neighborhoods of Rafah to the expanded humanitarian zone.”

“This matter will progress gradually, according to an ongoing assessment of the situation,” it said.

The expanded humanitarian zone in the al-Mawasi and Khan Younis areas includes field hospitals and tent camps for displaced Palestinians, with the IDF saying that “there has been a surge of humanitarian aid going into Gaza” recently.

The Kerem Shalom Crossing with southern Gaza remained closed on Monday following a deadly rocket attack on Israeli troops in the area a day earlier, but military sources said it may open following a new assessment of the situation.

The military said it would try to maintain the supply of humanitarian aid at the same level despite the closure of the crossing. Other crossings would remain open, and work continued on the construction of the Americans’ floating pier in central Gaza.

“The IDF will continue to pursue Hamas everywhere in Gaza until all the hostages that they’re holding in captivity are back home,” it added.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after crossing the terminal border from Egypt, on January 17, 2024. (AFP)

In the IDF flyers dropped in the Gaza Strip on Monday morning, the military warned Palestinians against approaching the borders with Israel or Egypt.

One flyer, addressed to all Gaza Strip residents, announced the expansion of the designated humanitarian zone in the al-Mawasi area.

“In this area, the expanded humanitarian aid will continue. The IDF will continue to fight the terror organizations that use you as human shields. Therefore: Gaza City is a dangerous fighting zone; avoid crossing to the north of Wadi Gaza,” it read.

“It is prohibited to come near to the eastern and southern security fences,” the IDF flyer added.

The second flyer, addressed to the residents and those sheltering in eastern Rafah neighborhoods, warned that “the IDF is about to operate with force against the terror organizations in the area where you currently reside, as the IDF has operated so far.”

“Anyone in the area puts themselves and their family members in danger,” it read.

This flyer also warned against approaching the Israeli and Egyptian borders.

In an overnight phone call, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, that Israel was left with no choice but to launch its offensive in southern Gaza’s Rafah.

Gallant updated Austin on the deadly rocket barrage from Rafah on an IDF position on the border a day earlier, his office said.

The minister detailed “the many efforts that the State of Israel is making to reach an [agreement] for the release of hostages and a temporary ceasefire, and said that at this stage Hamas refuses any proposal that would allow this.”

He told Austin that “there was no choice left and this meant the start of the Israeli operation in Rafah.”

“Gallant thanked the secretary of defense for the close cooperation, and emphasized that the US has an important role in advancing dialogue for the release of the hostages held captive by Hamas,” the ministry added.

Israeli soldiers drive a tank at a staging ground near the border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, May 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Fighter jets struck several Hamas positions in southern Gaza’s Rafah overnight, in the area from which the deadly rocket attack was carried out on Sunday, the military said. The IDF said it hit sniper positions, buildings used by terror groups, and other infrastructure.

According to Hamas health officials, one airstrike hit a house in Rafah, killing seven people.

Another strike just before midnight, the officials claimed, killed nine Palestinians, including a baby, in another house in a different part of Rafah.

The strikes in Rafah came as ground troops continued to operate in central Gaza’s Netzarim Corridor. In a recent incident, the IDF said, reservists of the Yiftah Brigade spotted a cell of gunmen near them and called in an airstrike.

In other strikes across Gaza, the military said fighter jets hit booby-trapped buildings and rocket launching positions. A helicopter also struck a building used by gunmen to fire at troops, the IDF said.

Israel says it has killed at least 13,000 fighters inside Gaza, along with around 1,000 killed inside Israel on October 7 and in the days immediately after.

Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry says over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, a figure that cannot be confirmed. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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