IDF plans expansion of Gaza humanitarian zones, but US unswayed on Rafah offensive

Area stretching from southern Strip to center along coast set aside for civilian shelter once forces move into last Hamas bastion, but Blinken says plan for humanitarian needs lacking

Israeli troops are seen near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 1, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Israeli troops are seen near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 1, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Israeli military on Wednesday signaled it was prepared to immediately launch its planned offensive in southern Gaza’s Rafah, expanding nearby areas for civilians to find shelter amid rampant concern over the fate of the 1.5 million Palestinians crowded into the city.

At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to an Israeli invasion of the city, saying Israel could find other ways to deal oust Hamas from an area thought to be its last major stronghold.

“We cannot, will not support a major military operation in Rafah absent an effective plan to make sure that civilians are not harmed and no, we’ve not seen such a plan,” Blinken told reporters.

“There are other ways — and in our judgment, better ways — of dealing with the real ongoing challenge of Hamas that does not require a major military operation” in Rafah, Blinken told reporters.

Israel is thought to be readying a push into Rafah should efforts to reach a truce deal this week fall through, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will launch an offensive into the city regardless.

Lt. Col. Avichay Adrae, the Israel Defense Force’s Arabic-language spokesperson, said recently that the army was enlarging a designated “humanitarian zone” in the southern Gaza Strip.

Light illuminates the minarets of al-Taiba mosque at sunset before the tents of displaced Palestinians at a camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 30, 2024. (AFP)

The current zone, in the al-Mawasi area on the coast, is being expanded into some areas of Khan Younis, reaching as far as the outskirts of the Deir al-Balah camp in central Gaza. The area is near where the US is building a dock for shipments of aid by sea into the Strip, providing an alternative to land routes into Rafah and northern Gaza and international airdrop missions.

Adraee, in a post on the X social media site Wednesday, said humanitarian aid “will flow” to the expanded humanitarian zone, part of “diligent humanitarian efforts to improve the humanitarian situation inside the Gaza Strip, because our war is against Hamas, not against the people of Gaza.”

A report detailed plans for a separate “safer zone” to be established in central Gaza, Army Radio reported Wednesday.

This graphic aired by the IDF on April 28, 2024, shows plans to expand the “humanitarian zone” in the Gaza Strip. The image on the left shows the current zone in the al-Mawasi area on the coast. (Israel Defense Forces)

The report said the additional zone, which would work similar to the expanded al-Mawasi zone, would be located on the outskirts of Buriej and Nuseirat, close to the IDF’s Netzarim Corridor.

The report did not explain what would make the zone “safer” than the other humanitarian zone.

Israel says it hopes civilians will leave Rafah for the humanitarian zones once fighting on the ground in the city begins.

The zones would serve Palestinians fleeing the fighting in Rafah once the IDF’s offensive there commences.

Military sources told The Times of Israel that the IDF was fully prepared for the Rafah operation, and was only awaiting a decision by the government.

During a meeting with Blinken, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant discussed the “efforts to return the hostages, and the need for the continuation of the military operation to dismantle Hamas,” the Defense Ministry said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) stands with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on May 1, 2024. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein / POOL / AFP)

“We are determined to take any action to return our hostages back to their home, it is correct ethically, it is correct morally, and this is a declared war goal,” Gallant said in a video statement after the meeting, which was also attended by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and the director general of the ministry, Eyal Zamir.

“At the same time, the IDF, subject to the instructions I gave… is prepared to carry out any operational mission in the Rafah area,” he added.

However, Jerusalem has come under heavy international pressure, including from the US, to hold off on the offensive.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has called a move into the southern Gaza city a “red line” without a credible plan to evacuate civilians.

In a meeting Wednesday with Netanyahu, Blinken “reiterated the United States’ clear position on Rafah,” State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said, amid strident international opposition to the move.

“The world has been appealing to the Israeli authorities for weeks to spare Rafah, but a ground operation there is on the immediate horizon,” UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement Tuesday. “The simplest truth is that a ground operation in Rafah will be nothing short of a tragedy beyond words.”

If the order is given, the operation would begin with the military calling on Palestinians to evacuate the Rafah area to the designated safe zones, the military sources 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 in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, saying it has dismantled the 18 Hamas battalions there. It has also carried out airstrikes in Rafah.

The IDF has estimated that some 150,000 Palestinians have already moved out of Rafah to the Khan Younis area, after the military withdrew from there last month.

Palestinians return to their destroyed homes in the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 30, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel was still awaiting answers from Hamas on the latest proposal for a hostage deal Wednesday night. Should there be a truce, Israel is expected to postpone the Rafah offensive, but not outright cancel it.

Hamas leaders said late Wednesday they were studying a proposal put forward by Egyptian mediators and hope to respond by Thursday.

The current round of truce talks between Israel and Hamas appears to be serious, but the sides remain far apart on one key issue — whether the war should end as part of an emerging deal.

“Most probably tomorrow, Thursday, God willing the mediators will be given a response,” the terror group said in a statement to the Associated Press.

If a truce with Hamas remains elusive or falls through, the Rafah operation would be carried out by the IDF’s 98th and 162nd divisions, with the military saying Tuesday that both had undergone intensive preparations in recent days for future offensives in Gaza.

The 162nd Division had operated in Gaza for six months until last week. It had most recently been tasked with the Netzarim Corridor in central Gaza. The 98th Division had spent four months operating in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, until it was withdrawn earlier this month.

Ahead of the looming Rafah operation, the IDF said it had “significantly increased” the amount of humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip, and that it would “continue to scale up even more.”

As part of those efforts, Israel on Wednesday reopened the sole crossing on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip for the first time since it was destroyed by Hamas on October 7, allowing aid trucks to pass through the Erez checkpoint following US demands to do more to get aid into the Strip.

Blinken acknowledged Wednesday that aid deliveries had increased but “reiterated the importance of accelerating and sustaining that improvement,” the State Department said.

An Israeli soldier walks through an inspection area for trucks carrying humanitarian aid supplies bound for the Gaza Strip, on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing from southern Israel, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Reopening the Erez crossing has been one of the main pleas of international aid agencies for months, to alleviate the humanitarian situation which is believed to be most severe among the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the enclave’s northern sector.

Col. Moshe Tetro, head of Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza, said he hoped the crossing would be open every day, and help reach a target of 500 aid trucks entering Gaza daily. That would be in line with pre-war supplies entering the enclave and far more than it has received during the last seven months.

“This is only one step of the measures that we took in the last few weeks,” he told reporters.

Humanitarian aid is airdropped to Palestinians over Gaza City, Gaza Strip, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Essa)

Hamas has been considering a plan for a 40-day ceasefire and the exchange of scores of hostages for larger numbers of Palestinian prisoners.

“Hamas needs to say yes and needs to get this done,” said Blinken, who was in Israel on his seventh Middle East crisis tour since the war broke out in October.

He later added: “If Hamas actually purports to care about the Palestinian people and wants to see an immediate alleviation of their suffering, it should take this deal.”

Tank fire echoed from the Gaza Strip as Blinken visited an aid inspection point at the Kerem Shalom crossing near Rafah Wednesday, a sign of the ongoing fighting in the Strip, even as troops have pulled back from most areas of the enclave aside from a corridor in central Gaza.

The military said earlier Wednesday that the Israeli Air Force struck numerous sites belonging to terror groups across the Strip over the past day, as troops continued to operate in the Netzarim Corridor area.

The corridor, built around a 6.8-kilometer-long 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. It also enables Israel to coordinate deliveries of humanitarian aid directly to northern Gaza.

IDF troops operate in the central Gaza corridor, in a handout image published May 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said targets hit by fighter jets over the past day included weapon depots, buildings used by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and rocket and mortar launching positions, including those used to target troops operating in Gaza.

Troops of the 99th Division operating in central Gaza also called in several airstrikes on operatives who were launching rockets at the forces, the IDF said.

In one incident, the IDF said reservists of the division’s Yiftah Brigade identified several operatives moving toward troops in central Gaza and called in an airstrike against them.

Shortly after the strike, another cell was spotted planting a bomb in the area, and it too was struck by an IAF aircraft, the military added.

The Yiftah Brigade troops also discovered a cache of weapons, military equipment and documents in a building in their area of operations.

The army also said a group of Palestinians launching mortars at Israeli troops in the central Gaza Strip were killed in a drone strike.

Additional infrastructure in the area of the launch and two more operatives at a site near the troops were also hit in strikes, the IDF added.

Israel’s ground operation in Gaza followed three weeks of aerial bombardments in the wake of the Hamas-led massacre on October 7, when more than 3,000 Palestinian terrorists stormed the border into southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and kidnapped 253, amid many acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Israel declared war on Hamas in response, launching an offensive aimed at toppling the Gaza-ruling terror group and securing the release of the hostages.

The IDF has said 263 soldiers have been killed and another 1,602 have been wounded during fighting in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has claimed that since the start of the war, 34,568 people have been killed, mostly civilians. These figures cannot be independently verified and, according to Israel, include at least 13,000 Hamas fighters. Another estimated 1,000 terrorists were killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

Agencies and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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