IDF: Civilians in Rafah will be evacuated to ‘humanitarian islands’ before ground op

Army says it killed Hamas commander in strike on UNRWA warehouse in Gaza’s southernmost city, where Gallant hints troops could soon enter: ‘We will reach everyone’

Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians line up for a meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday it plans to direct a significant portion of the 1.4 million displaced Gazans in Rafah toward “humanitarian islands” in the center of the territory, ahead of a planned ground operation in the southernmost Gazan city.

The fate of civilians in Rafah has been a major area of concern for Israel’s allies. Humanitarian groups have warned that an offensive in the southern city on the border with Egypt, believed to be the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the Strip, would be a catastrophe. Israel has said it is needed if the country is to achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said moving those in Rafah to the designated areas, which he stressed will be carried out in coordination with international actors, was a key part of the military’s preparations for its anticipated offensive on Rafah, where Hamas maintains four battalions that Israel says it wants to destroy.

Hagari said those “islands” will provide temporary housing, food, water, and other necessities to civilians fleeing war. He did not say when Rafah’s evacuation will occur, nor when the offensive on the city will begin, explaining that Israel wants the timing to be right operationally and to be coordinated with neighboring Egypt, which has said it does not want an influx of displaced Palestinians crossing its border.

The remarks by the military’s top spokesman came hours after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant hinted Israel could soon launch the ground offensive in Rafah.

“Extraordinary work is being done here above and below ground, the forces reach everywhere and the conclusion is that there is no safe place in Gaza for terrorists,” Gallant said while visiting Gaza City, according to comments provided by his office.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (in black) visits the western edge of Gaza City in the Strip on March 13, 2024. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

“Even those who think that we are delaying will soon see that we will reach everyone,” he added. “We will bring to justice anyone who was involved in October 7 — either we will eliminate them or bring them to trial in Israel. There is no safe place, not here, not outside of Gaza, not anywhere across the Middle East — we will bring everyone to their place.”

Gallant also addressed the humanitarian situation in the Strip and the new maritime corridor for aid, saying that it will allow assistance to reach “citizens and not Hamas,” and will weaken the terror group and “strengthen our hold and improve our ability to continue fighting.”

UNRWA warehouse strike

As Israel faces increased pressure to increase the amount of aid entering Gaza, the military on Wednesday carried out a strike on an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah, which it said killed a top Hamas commander.

Hamas claimed that five people were killed in the strike, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said at least one of its staff members was killed.

The IDF the Hamas operative as Muhammad Abu Hasna, a commander in the terror group’s operations unit. According to a joint IDF and Shin Bet statement, he was involved in “integrating extensive activity of the various Hamas units, was in contact with the field operatives of Hamas and directed them.”

The statement said Abu Hasna was also tasked with a Hamas intelligence war room that collected information on IDF movements in the Strip.

The IDF and Shin Bet also accused Hasna of involvement in seizing humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip and distributing it to Hamas operatives, adding that his elimination “significantly harms the functioning of various Hamas units in Rafah.”

Israel has accused at least a dozen UNRWA staffers of being active Hamas members involved in the October 7 massacre, and many others of being tied to the terror group, leading many countries to freeze aid to the UN agency.

IDF presses on in Khan Younis, central Gaza

Before turning to Rafah, the IDF has continued to carry out operations in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, where the military said the 98th Division has killed more than 100 Hamas operatives in the Hamad Town residential complex over the past week and a half.

The troops have been raiding the multi-story buildings in the Qatari-funded neighborhood, where the IDF says there is Hamas infrastructure.

Around 100 airstrikes were carried out during the operation in Hamad, according to the IDF.

The division’s Maglan and Egoz commando units, along with the Givati recon unit, captured several operatives in Hamad, including a commander in Hamas’s elite Nukhba force, the IDF said.

The IDF said captured operatives have provided the IDF intelligence on the locations of tunnels, booby traps, gunmen and other infrastructure.

In one case, the IDF says a captured Hamas fighter provided information on a building where 15 gunmen were holed up. The site was then struck and the operatives were killed, the IDF said.

Along with Hamad Town, troops also operated in the Khan Younis suburbs of al-Qarara and Abasan.

Meanwhile, the IDF said it eliminated a Hamas terrorist responsible for “many” rocket attacks on Israel, including on October 7. He was killed in an airstrike.

The Israeli Air Force also carried out “widespread” wave of strikes against Hamas sites in central Gaza’s Deir al-Balah, targeting tunnels, missile launching positions, and staging grounds, the IDF says.

A Palestinian man checks a pool of blood at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, following an Israeli airstrike on March 13, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Also in central Gaza, the IDF said the Nahal Brigade was continuing to battle Hamas operatives in the area. In one incident, Nahal troops spotted an operative entering a building known to belong to a Hamas member and called in an airstrike, the IDF said.

Separately, the military said two suspects in diving gear were spotted by the IDF entering the sea in northern Gaza earlier Wednesday.

Navy vessels tracked the pair and fired warning shots, after which they fled back to the coast, the IDF said.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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