IDF deploying two reserve brigades to Gaza as Israel girds for Rafah offensive

Troops to reportedly secure central corridor and US aid pier, allowing soldiers who are there now to prepare for planned push into southern city; 40,000 tents for evacuees procured

Troops operate in Gaza in an undated photo released by the military for publication on April 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops operate in Gaza in an undated photo released by the military for publication on April 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday said it was readying to deploy two reserve brigades for missions in the Gaza Strip, as the military appeared to move ahead with plans for an offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah as it seeks to remove the Hamas terror group from its last major redoubt in the enclave.

The 679th “Yiftah” Armored Brigade and the 2nd “Carmeli” Infantry Brigade, which had been operating on the northern border, were set to take responsibility for areas of central Gaza that have remained under Israeli military control since troops largely pulled back from other areas of the Strip earlier this month, according to an Army Radio report.

The move will free up Nahal Brigade troops currently holding the central corridor to join the rest of the 162nd Division in preparing for future operations, including planned offensives in Rafah and central Gaza, military sources have said.

The IDF said the two reserve brigades “prepared in recent weeks for their mission in the Gaza Strip.”

They “practiced battle techniques and learned the main insights and lessons from fighting and maneuvering in the Gaza Strip so far,” the military said.

The mobilized brigades were to be placed under the 99th Division. During the first few months of the IDF’s ground offensive, the division had been tasked with the so-called Netzarim corridor in the central Gaza Strip, an east-west route.

One of the brigades will again be deployed to the east-west belt dividing the Strip in two, while the second will secure a pier being built by the United States on central Gaza’s coast aimed at boosting deliveries of humanitarian aid, according to Army Radio.

The corridor, built around a road south of Gaza City, enables the IDF to carry out raids in northern and central Gaza while allowing Israel to control access to the north for Palestinians seeking to return after fleeing south.

An IDF reservist prepares equipment ahead of a drill, in a handout image released on April 24, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Victory in the Gaza war, launched after Hamas’s cross-border massacre and kidnapping spree on October 7, is impossible without taking Rafah, crushing the terror group, and recovering any hostages there, Israel has said.

Israeli officials have said Hamas has six remaining battalions in the Gaza Strip, including four in the southern city of 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.

The IDF has so far operated across northern Gaza and Gaza City, in some parts of central Gaza, and southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, saying it has dismantled the 18 Hamas battalions there.

The fighting has pushed an estimated million displaced Gazan civilians into Rafah, with the international community, including the US, warning that an offensive in the city could significantly worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Egypt, which Rafah abuts, said it warned Israel against pushing into the city. Such a move, Egypt’s State Information Service said, “would lead to massive human massacres, losses [and] widespread destruction.”

The commander of the IDF’s 162nd Division, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, (left) in the northern Gaza Strip in a handout image published February 5, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

While not discussing specific battle plans, the Israeli military has increasingly signaled readiness to move on Rafah, after pushing off the offensive for over a month to allow for truce talks aimed at freeing the 133 hostages thought still held in the Strip and to hear out US concerns about its plans for fighting in the city.

“Hamas was hit hard in the northern sector. It was also hit hard in the center of the Strip. And soon it will be hit hard in Rafah, too,” Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of the 162nd Division operating in Gaza, told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview aired on Tuesday.

“Hamas should know that when the IDF goes into Rafah, it would do best to raise its hands in surrender. Rafah will not be the Rafah of today… There won’t be munitions there. And there won’t be hostages there,” he said.

Israel has procured tens of thousands of tents for Palestinian civilians it intends to evacuate from Rafah in the coming weeks, Israeli sources said on Wednesday.

After weeks of talks with the US about civilian safeguards, Israel’s Defense Ministry has bought 40,000 tents, each with the capacity for 10 to 12 people, for Palestinians relocated from Rafah, Israeli government sources said.

Video circulated online appeared to show rows of square white tents going up in Khan Younis, a city some 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Rafah. Images from satellite company Maxar showing multiple tent camps on Khan Younis land that had been vacant on April 7.

This handout satellite image courtesy of Maxar Technologies shows tent camps for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024. (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies/AFP)

Government sources said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet planned to meet in the coming two weeks to authorize civilian evacuations — expected to take around a month — as the first stage of the Rafah sweep.

The Defense Ministry and Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment.

Citing Israeli and Egyptian officials, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the Israeli plans envision that the first two to three weeks of the operation in Rafah will consist of evacuating civilians, in coordination with the US, Egypt and other Arab countries.

The evacuation will reportedly involve moving civilians to the nearby city of Khan Younis, among other areas in Gaza, where Israel will set up shelters with tents, food and medical facilities.

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

After that, the officials said the IDF would gradually move troops into Rafah and target areas where it believes Hamas leaders and operatives are hiding.

Israel also believes that many of the remaining 129 hostages kidnapped in the Hamas-led October 7 atrocities are being held in Rafah.

The war in Gaza erupted when 3,000 terrorists poured across the border with Israel on October 7 in an unprecedented Hamas-led attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253.

The ensuing Israeli offensive has killed over 33,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. This figure cannot be independently verified and includes over 13,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed since the beginning of the war.

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